SAN JOSE – Back in training camp, second-year Sharks forward Tomas Hertl indicated he wasn’t quite ready to play center at the NHL level, despite the Sharks projecting him there at some point in the near future.
“I think maybe for me still the left wing is a little bit easier because center is a hard position in the NHL,” Hertl said on Sep. 23. “I see how [Joe Thornton] and [Logan Couture] play. I’m learning.”
Fast forward to Tuesday night in Arizona. Hertl started the game skating between Tye McGinn and Tyler Kennedy in what was the probably the Sharks’ most effective line in a 3-2 win over the Coyotes. He broke out of an 11-game goal drought, redirecting a slick pass from Brent Burns in the second period.
Linemate McGinn finished the night with a team-high eight shot attempts, including three that made it through, while Kennedy looked comfortable despite missing the previous 15 games with a shoulder injury.
Is Hertl ready for the middle now?
“I think it was a good game,” Hertl said Wednesday. “I like it, because I’ve played all my life at center. All the time you’re skating in the middle, and almost no stopping, and more on the puck.”
Kennedy, who has experience playing with top centers including some guy named Sidney something in Pittsburgh, liked what he saw from Hertl.
“Obviously going into the game playing NHL center for the first time is a little nerve-wracking, but he really handled that well and handled that professionally,” Kennedy said. “He did a great job.”
Todd McLellan made the move partly out of necessity, as fourth line center Andrew Desjardins left the team to witness the birth of his first child. It’s unclear how the lines will shake out on Thursday when the Sharks host the Maple Leafs, as Desjardins will again be an available option.
If the head coach had an idea, he wasn’t offering any hints, but he did admit that he liked what he saw out of Hertl, who has struggled to find his consistency in his sophomore season.
“I thought the move was a success for the individual, and also for the team,” McLellan said. “I thought Tomas skated and was involved in the play more than he had been in the past, which is encouraging for him and for us. It’s the first night, or one night.”
While Hertl is the sexier name among fans, McGinn’s recent surge is also notable. Along with his strong performance against the Coyotes, McGinn had four shots on goal in Saturday’s loss to the Rangers.
That makes seven shots on goal over the last two games, after he had just four shots on goal in his previous eight games combined.
McGinn has been a frequent healthy scratch after the Sharks surrendered a third round draft pick to Philadelphia over the summer to acquire him. He’s still sitting on just one goal and three assists in 27 games, but looks poised to break out of a season-long scoring slump.
“Tye was aggressive. He always has the look of working really hard, but something has to get done. Over the last few games, something has been accomplished with turnovers, offensive chances, and [he’s been] really good on the back-check.”
McGinn said: “I’ve felt good. I’m just trying to keep it simple, get pucks on net, and I’m working hard I think the past two games.”
Internal competition may have put some logs on the fire. Along with Kennedy’s return and Melker Karlsson coming out of nowhere to lock down a spot, the Sharks roster is becoming a crowded place, particularly among the bottom six forwards.
Guys like McGinn, and to a lesser extent Hertl and Kennedy, will need to contribute if they’re going to get ample playing time.
“I think it’s great when young players like Melker end up coming up and making a mark on the organization to the point where you’re forced to keep them,” McLellan said.
“That’s progress, that’s moving forward. That’s getting things done. The more players we can find like that, it pushes some guys out. That’s the sporting world, not just hockey, but in any sport. It forces guys to stay sharp, it forces guys to work on their game and to perform at a high level.”