I try to stay away from using the words “underrated” or “overrated” because without proper context they don’t mean much of anything. Underrated according to who? Based on what baseline rating? It’s much better to just rate a player rather than try to figure out if they’re better or worse than where someone else has ranked them.
All that to say, I think we take Tomas Hertl for granted sometimes. Because he plays with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, an admittedly enviable position for any NHL player, he doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves as a possession-driver. Let’s change that.
The Sharks’ hope for the past two seasons has been to transition Hertl into a third line center to create more depth. This has been met with skepticism at times, and it seems every time I mention penciling in Hertl as the 3C I get an email or tweet “reminding” me that he’s struggled in that role in the past.
Except that’s not exactly true. Hertl has played quite well away from the Joes in the past, particularly when he’s paired with players that belong on the third line. Don’t take my word for it (or for anything else, for that matter) — let’s hit the numbers, shall we?
Over the past three seasons Hertl has spent the vast majority of his 5v5 ice time playing with the Joes or with Thornton and Brent Burns. That certainly constitutes top-line ice time, but what about the other line combos Hertl has been a part of? Looking specifically at those Hertl has spent at least 50 minutes on the ice with, we see a trend. Data is from Corsica.Hockey.
This list is sorted by ice time and the column the furthest to the right is the one I’m most interested at the moment. All but two of these combos, of which there are 10, boast positive corsi-for percentages. Let’s focus on those two so we can determine what went wrong and how much blame Hertl should shoulder.
When paired with Tommy Wingels and Chris Tierney, they posted a corsi-for percentage of 44.85. That’s not great, particularly when compared to the 55 Hertl put up with Wingels and Matt Nieto. The odd man out here is Tierney, of course, but a closer look at the numbers tells a different story: one of zone usage.
That combo started 48 percent of its non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, which while not the lowest certainly falls below what Hertl saw with the Joes and Burns in the past. The other part of the tale may just be that Hertl and Tierney’s style of play doesn’t matchup as well as Hertl and Nieto’s — add that to my opinion that Nieto’s a better player anyway.
The other negative combo won’t be skating at SAP Center anytime soon. James Sheppard and Barclay Goodrow played with Hertl for fewer than 60 minutes and posted a corsi-for percentage of 44.86. Just a tick better than what Hertl saw with Tierney and Wingels and with an even lower zone start rate of 42.42.
Beyond that, Sheppard and Goodrow are fourth line players and while Hertl is quite good, he’s not going to drag players like that to excellence. If Hertl is paired with other third-line players, they’ll post excellent numbers this season. Take a look at the forward’s HERO chart to see just how well the Sharks played when he was on the ice.
You’ve likely seen this image before, but what I want to highlight here are the two white bars near the top of the image (from ownthepuck.blogspot.com). The orange circle shows the corsi-for percentage of his teammates over the past three years when playing without Hertl, while blue circle shows how those same linemates play when with him.
The difference should be obvious — everyone, yes even the Joes, benefit from playing with Hertl. He’s legitimately one of the best forwards in the game and his absence from the Czech team is going to sorely hurt it. That loss will be the Sharks gain, assuming Hertl comes into camp 100 percent recovered from the knee injury he sustained in the playoffs.
We talk a lot about Hertl and what he means to this team, but I think we can offer even more appreciation for the Czech forward than we do currently. Hertl isn’t just a great complimentary piece for the Joes to work with, he’s a player that can carry the Sharks in the future. That’s something to get excited about.