Tomas Hertl’s superhero origin story is unlike that of any other Shark. After being drafted, the 19-year-old forward quietly put together a season in which he scored 0.71 points per game in the Czech professional league. The following year, he did not so much as glance at the mother club’s AHL franchise dressing room before walking onto the ice and picking up his first big-league assist in his first NHL game. He emerged, a fully proportioned NHL butterfly, a few nights later when his fourth goal of the evening, a between-the-legs pop shot over Marty Biron’s shoulder, sent the backup goaltender into immediate and early retirement.
Outside of Hertl’s outsized rookie season — in which he scored nearly 0.7 points per game — the versatile forward has failed to rattle the scoresheet regularly. In the four seasons since, the No-Longer-Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl has scored (goals and primary assists) at a first-line rate only once at 5-on-5. He’s settled in mostly at a middle-six pace when sides are at even strength and is unlikely to ever pour pucks into the net at a faster pace. But what makes Hertl so special is what goes on under the proverbial hood.
The crux of statistical analysis of hockey is in determining a player’s individual impact on the game. The twins (Josh and Luke Younggren) behind the Twitter moniker @EvolvingWild handle this in a method similar to that of NBA’s box plus-minus. Their method — unlike hockey’s more widely referred to “plus minus” — helps tell us what a player contributed to his team in the forms of 5-on-5 goals, expected goals and shots (attempted, blocked, on goal, missed, goals).
The barometer for each measurement is league average. Hertl has a strong positive impact on his team’s shots, and a weaker, but still positive impact on his team’s expected goals. What makes him a rare breed is his positive impact on defense. Despite shuttling between center and wing and the smorgasbord of teammates that entails, Hertl not only tilts the ice in the Sharks favor, but he keeps it that way by limiting opponents’ chances whether he’s riding shotgun on Brent Burns and Joe Thornton’s line or mushing the likes of Tommy Wingels up and down the ice.
On the far left of this impact chart lies Hert’s love/hate relationship with 5-on-5 goals. For all his hard work at either end, particularly the offensive zone, the Sharks score a relatively low proportion of goals when he’s on the ice. This is where we all remember to trust the process and trust that this, the noisiest of the three statistics available here, will in time grow to match the length and deep purple hues of its neighboring bars.
Hertl, teenage mutant ninja or not, should reach the height of his powers this season as a 25-year-old. The forward has shown he can thrive in a top-six role alongside playmakers just as much as he does driving his own third line around the NHL. We are watching him approach his ceiling, and the upper bounds of his superhero story is that he is a second-line forward who can chip in just about anywhere else in the lineup. Not only was he the Sharks’ most impactful player under 25 years of age, but he was one of their most impactful players, period.
According to a blended average of three different wins above replacement (WAR) models, Hertl was on of the Sharks’ five best skaters last season. These types of metrics, like the plus minus adjustment above, all try to suss out individual contributions. Hertl is more than his box score statistics. He is a play driver and a chance creator. He plays a legitimate “200-foot game” and will give his team a better chance of winning regardless of his own goals and assists columns.
What we like
Hertl is known for his sizable, solid rear end, seriously. He uses his size well in all facets of his game, whether he’s retrieving pucks from the corner, screening goalies on the power play, or keeping his big body between the puck and his own net on defense. He’s versatile: He can play on both special teams and play wing or center and do well in each of those roles.
Areas of improvement
Corey Sznajder has painstakingly tracked NHL games for the past few seasons, recording individual player contributions to neutral zone play. CJ Turturo brought those manually recorded moments to life with the visualization you see above. It’s clear that Hertl contributes to the Sharks’ shot differential — we’ve seen that almost ad nauseam here — but it’s also apparent he struggles to exit his own zone and enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck. Part of this is likely due to his role on the team or a given line. Yet, if we had to poke a hole in Hertl’s game, the missing piece would be that he has not shown a wonderful propensity for transitioning from defense to offense on a regular basis.
The goal that gave birth to “fun must be always” and the potential of a Joe Thornton rooster trick.