SAN JOSE – Part of the reason Sharks general manager Doug Wilson preached a one-step-backwards-to-take-two-steps-forward approach for the 2014-15 season was the expected growth of a host of his team’s younger players.
That put sophomores like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Alex Stalock immediately in focus. A little past the halfway point of the regular season, all three have struggled to consistently perform.
After 15 goals in just 37 regular season games last season, Hertl has contributed just eight goals and 16 points this season in 44 games.
Nieto is among the league’s best players in terms of advanced possession stats, but still has just three goals and nine points in 34 games, below his pace last season of 24 points in 66 games.
Stalock, given an opportunity in training camp to unseat Antti Niemi for the starting goalie job, has once again resumed his place as the backup.
If the Sharks are going to be a threat to make a deep playoff run – or even make it to the playoffs at all – each of those players will likely have to perform better than they have so far.
Even though the numbers may not be there, that’s necessarily surprising to coach Todd McLellan.
“The next step for a sophomore is a tough one,” McLellan said. “Your environment changes, expectations go up higher, league awareness goes up higher. Satisfaction in mediocre numbers isn’t good enough anymore – you’ve got to take the next step. It’s a tough thing for a young player to do.”
Nieto said: “Other teams know who we are now. We’ve been in the league for a year now. They know what our weaknesses are, what our strengths are.”
Hertl’s regression is perhaps the most concerning. After bursting onto the scene a little more than a year ago, he suffered a serious knee injury and hasn’t quite looked the same since. It didn't help that he tweaked the knee in the World Championships last spring, hindering his offseason training regimen. He needs to be stronger on his skates to support of his six-foot-two, 210-pound frame.
He admitted earlier this week that his confidence is waning.
“For me, it’s a little bit tougher this season because it’s not the same as last season,” Hertl said. “It’s a new year, so I’ll start again and start harder. [The] NHL is very, very hard because [of] so many games, [playing] almost every other day. It’s very tough to be ready for every game and be 100 percent.”
Hertl continues to work with the coaching staff, but knows it’s now up to him alone to pick up the pace.
“Now it’s about just me, and not about the coaches or guys. Now, it’s about me,” he said.
Despite the drop in production, Nieto continues to radiate confidence in working his way through his second season. Like Hertl, there is no doubt that he is a key part of the Sharks’ future, both for his skill set and his attitude. He’s just 22 years old, but Nieto exudes a maturity level beyond his years.
If he’s worried at all about scoring output, it doesn’t show.
“It’s definitely harder, but I think effort-wise I’m giving it my all and trying my hardest,” Nieto said of his season. “Even though points aren’t coming I think I’m playing pretty well.”
He’ll likely continue to get big minutes in key situations, such as playing on a line now with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
“That’s what’s important. If I’m still playing, the coach obviously finds that I’m doing something productive out there and helping the team in some parts of the game, which is always nice,” he said.
Stalock, of course, isn’t getting nearly as much playing time as Hertl or Nieto in his second full NHL season. While his numbers are decent, with a 5-4-1 record, 2.43 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, Stalock is making some errors that he wasn’t making last season. He turned the puck over in the defensive zone in Minnesota in his most recent start on Jan. 6 leading to an easy Wild goal, and in his start prior to that, allowed a bad angle shot by Vancouver’s Radim Vrbata to beat him on Dec. 30.
They are the kind of misplays that happen to any goalie throughout the course of a season, but get magnified when you’re the backup.
“There’s been ups and downs,” Stalock said. “I had a good stretch there for a bit and got to play a little bit in December, and then obviously a long break. … You don’t get a lot of action. You know when you do, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
The Sharks began the season with a platoon in net, as Stalock and Niemi alternated starts for the first seven games, but Niemi quickly assumed the number one gig about three weeks in.
“Nemo got going and played well,” Stalock said. “It’s time earned in the net. A mistake here and a mistake there it’s in the back of your net, maybe that’s why you’re not playing as much.”
The Sharks will likely continue to be among a group of teams that will have to fight for a playoff spot until April in the competitive Western Conference. They’ve gone on some good runs, such as winning nine of 10 before Christmas, but they’ve also hit some rough patches, like the early-season road trip and some post-Christmas malaise that they are still working through.
If guys like Hertl, Nieto and Stalock can find a way to improve, it would go a long way in their quest to clinch an 11th straight postseason appearance for the organization. After that, as they say, anything can happen.
“Their second halves will be really important for our success,” McLellan said.