COMMENTARY | Less than two weeks into new season, the San Jose Sharks are a surprising 5-0, outscoring opponents 24-7, and owning three big victories within the Pacific Division. However, the biggest surprise coming out of San Jose isn't the Sharks, but rather their rookie phenom Tomas Hertl.
Hertl came into the season with big expectations, but his break-out performance so far has exceeded anything reasonably expected from a 19-year old who had never skated in an NHL game before. Through five games, Hertl has seven goals, including four in a home ice win over the New York Rangers, the fourth and final goal being one that will live for decades on highlight reels everywhere.
Recognizing his fantastic start, the NHL recognized Hertl as one of its three stars for the week ending October 13 - pretty heady stuff for a player with no previous North American professional hockey experience.
An immediate opportunity
Desperate at times last season to add scoring punch, coach Todd McLellan and staff opened training camp with Hertl penciled onto the Sharks' first line with Joe Thornton and Bryan Burns. He fit in immediately, and his play in the pre-season only cemented his spot on the top line, where he benefits from Thornton's precision passing and Burns' reckless abandon opening big spaces on the ice.
Spinnin' wheels go 'round and 'round
Hertl is a swift skater who adds speed to the Sharks lineup, a key point of emphasis since last season's mid-season roster shake-up sent packing the likes of lumbering Ryane Clowe. Hertl's speed gives the Sharks an option when initially breaking out of their own zone, as shown on his trick-shot goal against the Rangers. Additionally, his quick first step and change of direction adds a dangerous dimension to the Sharks' cycle down low when playing a half-ice game five-on-five.
Willingness to go to the net
Unlike a lot of young players, Hertl shows a strong willingness to skate hard to the net, with or without the puck. His positioning in the slot and his puck-hawking abilities have already paid off with a couple of rebound goals, and only reinforces to the entire team one of the mantras of hockey: Good things happen when you go to the net.
Responsible at both ends
Hertl's not just a scoring threat, but a player who has shown a knack for being responsible and accountable on defense as well. His speed is an asset on the forecheck, and he shows an affinity for finishing his checks. He also gets back quickly in the transition game. While it's easy to have a strong plus/minus rating with seven goals and an assist through five games, his plus seven is third on the Sharks and indicative of his strong play defensively.
Dramatic, yes, but durable?
The NHL's regular season is a grind, and it only gets worse come playoff time. Critical to the Sharks long-term success is Hertl's ability to survive the grind and continue to thrive - a big question mark for any rookie, much less a 19-year old. Unfortunately, Hertl's flair for the dramatic extends beyond scoring highlight reel goals. Twice this season, Hertl has been hit hard enough to leave the ice and miss at least a shift, both times dropping his stick and both gloves and making a beeline to the bench. Most often in the NHL, players stoically make their way off the ice, not wanting to give the slightest indication to opponents of any physical problems. Hertl's drama-king flair is only going to brighten the bullseye that he is already carrying.
Clearly, two weeks does not a season make. But, Hertl's surprisingly strong start could very well last through the season. Thornton and Patrick Marleau, having both been teenage phenoms themselves, are strong mentors in the dressing room, and the Sharks have bought into an up-tempo, free-flowing style that complements Hertl's skill set. In late spring, Hertl will be a strong candidate for the Calder trophy. Sharks fans are hoping it's not the only trophy to celebrate.
@RayHartjen is a longtime rink rat who's been on a decades-long quest to get the stink of hockey gloves off his hands.
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