SAN JOSE -– When Tomas Hertl began his rookie season in 2013 as the left wing on Joe Thornton’s line, the thinking was that he would get his feet wet there before eventually transitioning to center.
That hasn’t happened yet, despite Hertl starting 35 of the Sharks’ first 38 games in the middle with mixed results. According to coach Pete DeBoer, though, Hertl’s experience playing center this year is what has allowed him to thrive in the past two months back at left wing.
And thrive he has. Hertl has 12 goals and eight assists for 20 points and a plus-17 rating in his last 26 games since moving back up to the Thornton line with right wing Joe Pavelski on Jan. 9.
“I thought his experience through the first  games playing center has been very beneficial for him. It’s allowed him to kind of get into the spot he’s in now,” DeBoer said last week. “I don’t know if he would be there if he had started out day one with Joe and Joe. It’s been a process with him. He’s starting to play very good hockey for us now at the right time.”
Hertl was relied upon heavily at center after Logan Couture’s injuries forced him from the lineup for most of the first half of the season. While the 22-year-old was hardly a liability, as some of his advanced metrics would indicate, the offense just wasn’t there. Through 37 games, Hertl had just four goals, 15 points and a minus-six rating. He was even bumped down to the fourth line for a brief stretch.
That learning-on-the-fly might have been fine if Hertl was on a team that is rebuilding or doesn’t have Stanley Cup aspirations, but the Sharks fancy themselves contenders. They needed more from their affable third-year forward, so the change to wing was made when Couture got healthy.
So what’s led to Hertl's recent surge? DeBoer suggested that the details in Hertl’s game became sharper from his time at center, as did his compete level, which needed to improve on a game-by-game basis.
“I think when you’re playing center in the NHL, and at the time [he was] playing against the other team’s good players, you’ve got to pay attention to details more than you do playing on the wing with Joe and Joe. Your attention to detail has to be right, your compete level has to be right, or you get exposed very quickly.
“That’s all part of being a pro, and I think he learned some valuable lessons there.”
Naturally, the jovial Hertl doesn’t care where he’s playing as long as he’s helping the team win games. Lately, that’s what he’s been doing.
“[I’m] just happy now because we play good hockey with the Joes," Hertl said. "If I play [center] maybe next year or a couple years, I don’t care. … I want to just play every game, my hockey.”
“I feel great. A lot of chances. Feel good. Everything is going right [with] the whole team. We are in a good position now and play pretty good. I think it’s a pretty good time now.”