SAN JOSE – When Tomas Hertl lined up as a center on Tuesday in Arizona for the first time in his NHL career, the move was done out of necessity. Andrew Desjardins had to depart in the middle of the night to be with his expecting wife, so it was up to Hertl to fill the void as fourth line center. He scored a goal, and his line was strong with wingers Tyler Kennedy and Tye McGinn in a 3-2 triumph.
The next game on Thursday against Toronto, Hertl assumed that position again while Desjardins was a healthy scratch. By the end of the 3-1 win over the Maple Leafs, Hertl’s line was playing more minutes than the James Sheppard-Tommy Wingels-Barclay Goodrow trio.
It’s unclear if Hertl would have played center if Desjardins had not had to pull himself from the lineup, but the timing seems to be ideal. The Sharks’ schedule isn’t overly difficult right now with wins against the Coyotes and Maple Leafs behind them, and the Flames and Devils on the horizon. None of those clubs are as talented on paper as the Sharks, and Hertl has been able to take advantage of some minutes against easier opponents and line matchups after spending most of his first year-and-a-half in the NHL in a top-six role.
The Sharks would like to see Hertl become an NHL center at some point in the near future, as Joe Thornton advances in age and Joe Pavelski has become an irreplaceable winger as the team’s best goal-scorer.
Still, the move is in its infancy.
“We need to slow things a little bit down with Tomas,” McLellan said on Friday, when I again broached the subject with him. “He’s played two games, and I’ve seen his legs move really good in the two games, and he looks confident, but it’s two games. Let’s see where we end up.”
It’s also not fair to suggest that Hertl has replaced Desjardins in the lineup, as the two players aren’t similar.
McLellan said: “Desi is a completely different player than Tomas – completely different player. He has a lot of assets that he brings to the table that we need on given nights. I think we’re talking about apples and oranges, and we’re also talking about a player that’s played center for two nights now, and that’s it.”
Despite McLellan downplaying the past two games, monitoring Hertl over the next little while will be intriguing, as the Sharks’ bottom two lines this season have been in a near constant state of flux.
They also haven’t provided the team enough on a game-to-game basis. That’s partly due to injuries to guys like Kennedy, Matt Nieto and Mike Brown, but not completely.
Sheppard is perhaps the biggest example when it comes to that lack of production. While the center deserves a fair amount of credit for improving his faceoff numbers, he’s simply not generating enough for the minutes he’s getting. Sheppard now has just one goal in his last 30 games (against Edmonton on Dec. 18), with eight assists over that span, despite playing more than 14 minutes a night and getting frequent time on the second power play unit.
I also still hear suggestions that that Pavelski should go back to centering the third line. Maybe that would have made sense a calendar year ago, or maybe even last year in the playoffs, but it makes little sense now. Why in the world would you mess with the guy who’s been arguably your best player this season and the NHL’s top goal-scorer for the 2014 calendar year? The Sharks don’t have anyone that could play in Pavelski’s place in the top six that would have the kind of impact he has on a nightly basis, especially considering the way Patrick Marleau has dried up offensively.
Every impression I’ve gotten from McLellan is that he has no intentions on moving Pavelski from the wing. Nor should he. That’s just too risky a move.
Hertl, though, might be able to give a boost in terms of that all-important secondary scoring that every NHL team talks about, even if his second year has been a bit of a disappointment so far. Ideally, I would imagine Wingels would be a better fit on that third line than McGinn, and if Hertl continues to play well, perhaps Sheppard and Desjardins can rotate in as the fourth line center depending on the opponent.
Regardless, the 21-year-old fan favorite, who burst onto the scene last October, could end up being a key to the team’s performance over the next three months and beyond.