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2018-19 Season Review: Tomas Hertl cements himself as a top-line center

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San Jose’s fun-loving phenom had plenty to smile about this season.

Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks is congratulated by teammates after he scored his second goal of the night on Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights in the third period in Game 5 of the First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Tomas Hertl, now with seven NHL seasons under his belt, has produced his fair share of highlights for the San Jose Sharks, both on the ice and in front of the camera.

From the night he put the league on notice, scoring four goals in a single game as a mere 19 year old — a game capped off with a goal so spectacular it retired goaltender Martin Biron — the Czech forward has been an absolute force. His boyish enthusiasm and contagious smile have stolen the hearts of legions of fans across the league, and in the eyes of Sharks faithful, secured his place as an all-time fan favorite. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s as skilled as he is likable and possesses a near-ideal physique for a modern power forward, standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing in at around 215 pounds.

Tomas Hertl Player Card Getty Images/Fear the Fin illustration by JD Young

While Hertl has always had immense talent and all of the physical gifts needed to be a premier player in the NHL, he’s been limited by injury. Following a gruesome knee injury in his rookie season, Hertl’s sophomore campaign was - by the standard he set with his electric rookie play - disappointing. Hertl contributed only six more points on the year despite playing in 45 more games than his rookie season, and unfortunately, looked as though he had lost some of the magic he advertised the year prior.

Fortunately, the young center followed that season with a bounce back campaign, and since then has steadily progressed as an NHL player. During that time, however, Hertl dealt with nagging injuries, unable to play a full season (although he got very close in 2015-16, playing in 81 contests) and missing critical games in 2016’s Stanley Cup Final, which the Sharks ended up losing. Because of this, many Sharks fans believed that coming in to the 2018-19 season they knew what they had in Hertl, so to speak.

And with a smile, Tomas Hertl showed them otherwise.

Hertl had a true breakout season, tallying 35 goals and 39 assists for 74 points in 77 games, while reducing his penalty minutes from last season’s 41 to an infinitely more palatable 18. He won 51.5% of his faceoffs as he continued to establish himself as a center full time under Coach Peter DeBoer, and remained a possession goliath, posting a 56.9% Corsi for (CF%), good for a +3.5 percent relative Corsi (CF% rel) for on the league’s best 5-on-5 CF% team. While Hertl’s +3.5 CF% rel was a career low, that's due to how dominant the 2018-19 Sharks were in terms of puck possession; for context, in the 2015-16 season Hertl posted a 58.5 CF% (only a 1.6 percent increase from this season’s total) and that was good for a +8.9 CF% rel.

Even more impressive is that these percentages aren’t just arbitrary numbers; every time he touched the puck, Hertl’s puck possession prowess was strikingly clear. Utilizing his immense frame, powerful skating stride and deft stick-handling abilities, it wasn’t uncommon to see the Czech forward barrel into the offensive zone, a backchecking forward in tow, and simply overpower a defender (sometimes two) en route to the net. Doing so consistently generated high quality scoring chances for himself — as evidenced by his 35 goals and 53.74 expected goals for — or left his line-mates wide open, unaccounted for by the defense on the goalie’s opposite side.

Knowing that, hearing that this was the year Hertl ended his four-season hat-trick drought shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. What may come as a surprise, however, is that he tallied two in seven days: one in a 5-2 win against Pittsburgh, and the other in a wild 7-6 overtime win in the nation’s capital.

Hertl’s stellar play continued into the postseason, where he improved his face-off win percentage to 56.2%, and posted 10 goals and 5 assists in 19 games, including the overtime winner in Game 6, a game now known affectionately as the “Easter Epic” by Sharks faithful. Unfortunately, his postseason ended early, as he took a vicious, unnecessary shot to the head from St. Louis Blues forward Ivan Barbashev in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, and didn’t play in Game 6, the Sharks’ last contest of the season.

Career Summary (via HockeyViz)

As seen above, Hertl continued on his trajectory into a top line center role, playing a 1A/1B role with Logan Couture. The Czech native’s primary points per hour saw a massive spike compared to the years prior, approaching the highest rate of his career.

RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)

Unsurprisingly, Hertl’s Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) chart showcases his dominance in the arenas of goal scoring and possession. That being said, his defensive expected goals for (Def_xG) is almost a full point below the standard deviation, and highlights the primary element of the young center’s game in need of improvement.

Highlight

Truly, the highlight of Tomas Hertl’s season could be nothing else. Sure, he’s scored prettier goals, but none come close to this one in terms of impact. While teammate Barclay Goodrow scored the goal that sent the Sharks to the second round, Tomas Hertl (unintentionally) made a Messier-esque guarantee on behalf of his team, and personally delivered on it, scoring shorthanded in overtime, simultaneously stunning two cities and forcing a Game 7.

What comes next?

Tomas Hertl, for what he brings to a lineup, has one of the highest value contracts in the NHL in the salary cap era, as he’s set to make approximately $5.6 million annually for the next three seasons. Considering his age, skillset, and the quality of the team around him, it isn’t a stretch to imagine he posts similar numbers next season, despite his abnormally high shooting percentage this year (19.9%) likely to regress. With the Sharks set to lose at least one prominent forward in the off-season, Hertl will likely see more ice time next year, in which case, I’d bank on him exceeding his 2018-19 point total.

Regardless, with Hertl, fun will be always.