SAN JOSE – A big part of the reason Tomas Hertl had a disappointing sophomore season was that his confidence was shot. He admitted as much a few months in, when he wasn’t producing at an acceptable rate while still likely suffering from the effects of right knee surgery.
That sure doesn’t seem to be an issue now. Take, for example, his play in the first period on Saturday against Carolina, when he charged ahead on Noah Hanifin, chipped the puck around the rookie defenseman, sidestepped him, corralled it again and put a backhand on net from close range. The eventual result was linemate Joel Ward’s first of three goals on the night, when Ward jammed home a loose puck.
“That’s a big part of it for young guys, feeling comfortable enough to try things like that,” head coach Pete DeBoer said of Hertl’s self-assurance.
Being totally healthy, along with a slimmer and fitter physique from an improved diet, has helped.
“I feel way better. I feel my legs are better,” said Hertl, who has 4 points (2g, 2a) in eight games. “Third period I play maybe a little bit more minutes now, and I feel still good. It’s good for me.”
On a long list of players the Sharks needed to improve from last year, Hertl’s name was arguably at the top. DeBoer put him in the middle of the third line early in training camp, and that’s where he stayed for the first three games.
The lights shined even brighter on Hertl after Logan Couture was lost with a fractured right fibula and DeBoer moved him up between Ward and Patrick Marleau, after that line had been the Sharks’ best in the early going with Couture.
In the first game without Couture in New Jersey on Oct. 16, Hertl registered an assist on Marleau’s goal two minutes into the game but then went scoreless for three straight before Saturday. The chemistry is improving though, as evidenced by his line’s three goals, all by Ward, in Saturday's 5-2 win.
“I think he’s getting better. He’s getting more comfortable,” DeBoer said.
Ward said: “I’m pretty impressed the way he projects the puck. He’s a big guy that can move.”
One of more encouraging aspects of Hertl’s game has been his performance in the faceoff circle. He went 9-for-12 against the Hurricanes; 11-for-16 a game earlier vs. Los Angeles; and 6-for-8 against the Rangers last Sunday. That’s something he’s been working on with development coach Mike Ricci.
“That’s been a nice surprise,” DeBoer said. “Usually young guys, that’s probably where they get eaten up the most in this league. He’s a big strong guy and takes a lot of pride in it and he’s been very good.”
There are still parts of Hertl's game that need polish, mostly in the defensive zone. He could have been harder on Carolina’s Riley Nash on a second period goal-against on Saturday, for example.
“I think we’re doing well in the offensive zone, just we need a couple small details in the d-zone,” Hertl said.
That part of the game takes time for just about every young player, though, and it’s easy to forget that Hertl has still played about a season and a half of NHL hockey. Considering the way he’s trending, there’s reason to believe that Hertl is back on the right path to becoming the player the Sharks projected him to become when they made him the 17th overall pick in the 2012 draft.
“I think he’s got a real high celling here with a lot of room still to grow,” DeBoer said.