NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson raves about a young prospect about as often as he wore a helmet during his playing days. He wants the talented kids in San Jose's organization to prove themselves on NHL ice before the praise flows.
Wilson made an exception last spring for 19-year-old forward Tomas Hertl, the Sharks first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft from the Czech Republic.
Just days after the Sharks were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a seven-game semifinals loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Wilson held his annual season-ending press conference, looking back but also looking ahead to the 2013-14 season. As he talked about how excited the Sharks were "about what's ahead of us," Hertl's name came up often.
"He has a skill set that can be a difference maker," Wilson said, calling Hertl a "really important piece" in the Sharks plans. "You know our history. A player has to come in and earn it on his merit. But he signed a three-year deal, and he'll be here probably next month."
Hertl reported to training camp with the intent of earning a spot on the Sharks roster. The 6-foot-2 Hertl weighed in at 210 pounds, 12 more than he weighed when the Sharks drafted him with the 17th pick in 2012. Since then, he has played his second year in the Czech Extraliga, where he was a teenager more than holding his own against men.
"I feel good," Hertl said after his first training camp practice with the Sharks. "I played two years with a big team that is physical. I am ready."
Hertl made an immediate impact in his NHL preseason debut, playing on a line with center Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels in a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. At 10:38 of the first period, he earned his first NHL assist when Pavelski scored to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead.
Hertl was in the left circle when a puck deflected through the air his way. He deftly batted it toward the net, where Wingels fired a shot. Pavelski ripped the rebound into the back of the net.
"Sometimes young players like that are intimidated and they play on their heels, they don't really show us what they have," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told reporters after the game. "Tomas carries himself like he belongs here. Strong on pucks, created plays, held onto the puck when he needed to, didn't panic -- so a good first night."
Hertl had four shots and one hit in his debut, using his big body to control the puck. He showed his skill as a passer and skater and spent time on the power play, too.
"I need to get better at skating," Hertl said. "I am a good and physical player and score and I am strong on the puck."
In his debut at the SAP Center, Hertl skated on the top line with center Joe Thornton and Brent Burns and knocked in a rebound off the boards for a goal at 14:42 of the first period in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
"I thought he did a lot of good things in the game," McLellan said after the loss. "I thought the game was much faster than it was in Vancouver the other night, so he got a taste of the speed. He made some nice plays and wasn't a liability defensively. The more he plays, the more it looks like he fits in well."
Thornton, who made his NHL debut as an 18-year-old in 1997 for the Boston Bruins, said he can relate to what Hertl is going through.
"But it's a little bit different with him," Thornton said. "The whole culture shock is going to be a little different and him learning English is going to be a little different as well. But he's a good player. He's a big player, and I think he has a bright future. He's just going to have to work and earn a spot here."
Hertl's ability to speak and understand English has improved greatly since draft day in 2012 when he communicated how he felt through a huge smile that rarely left his face. Hertl flashed that infectious smile again after Pavelski's goal as he rushed over to celebrate.
"He has the skill level," Pavelski said. "He's a first-rounder. He can skate, handle the puck and shoot it. He looks like he's having fun out there."
Hertl said he has immersed himself in "hockey and English" since arriving in San Jose. Adjusting to life in California, he said, has not been hard.
"California is my dream," Hertl said, smiling. "Every day is sun and it's nice. I like California."
Pavelski said Hertl's language barrier shouldn't prevent him from excelling on the ice.
"You can see him out there just watching, watching the drills," Pavelski said. "That's the best way to learn, with your eyes. He's done that so far. He's fit into the drills. If you explain something to him he catches on and is right there. He seems like a smart player."
The Sharks have the option of sending Hertl to Worcester of the American Hockey League if they believe he needs more seasoning. He's doing all he can to convince them he deserves to stay in San Jose.
"That will be up to the coaching staff and his performance," Wilson said. "He has the skill set and he's played with men. Certainly there are high expectations, but it's a journey. You look back at when Logan [Couture] came up, and Joe Pavelski. You've got to have the aptitude to play with high end players like that, but then you've got to be able to play. The process of playing in the NHL is not an easy process. Time will tell. He has everything needed to do that. Whether it's now or not, we'll see."
Author: Eric Gilmore | NHL.com Correspondent
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