Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng
In the golden age of Sharks hockey, it might have been Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, or Brent Burns’s voices booming, trying to get the players together after practice to take a picture with a special guest.
Two weeks ago at Sharks Ice, it was Tomas Hertl’s voice that blasted like a bullhorn to gather his teammates around eight-year-old Leukemia survivor Quinn.
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It was a symbolic moment, an example of how Hertl has gone from the “Fun Must Be Always” teenager who took San Jose by storm a decade ago to the 30-year-old alternate captain currently trying to lead the 3-14-1 Sharks out from one of the worst starts in franchise history.
It doesn’t mean the smile is gone, but it’s tempered with something else.
“At end of the day, you're going to be positive, but you also need to be a little bit hard sometimes,” fellow alternate captain Mario Ferraro said. “He's had a good balance.”
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It’s been especially hard for Hertl and Ferraro without captain Logan Couture, out since the beginning of training camp with a lower-body injury.
But Hertl, who signed an eight-year, $65.1 million extension with the Sharks in March 2022, has stepped up after a challenging first year of his contract last season.
While the Sharks lifer put up a solid 22 goals and 41 assists in 79 games last year, it felt like Hertl was taking San Jose’s losing, their fourth-straight campaign out of the playoffs, too hard. You could see the frustration in his play and body language a little too often.
“I know even if you don’t score, you have to show [the way], play hard and be one of the leaders of the team and help the young kids to get better,” he recognized during his exit interview last year.
There’s caring, and there’s caring too much. Hertl is striking a better balance this season, in even more trying circumstances. Through 18 games, sans Couture, the Sharks have a league-worst minus-48 goal differential. Last year at this time, with Couture, Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier, San Jose was 6-9-3 with a minus-8 goal differential.
“I think he’s grown as a leader. He’s been more vocal this year. You know, every year, there’ve been guys taken from the room,” GM Mike Grier said. “Now he’s one of the elder statesmen, and I think he’s embracing that this year, and being more vocal and showing more leadership qualities — whether it was after Nashville or on the bench, he’s been trying to help the young guys out and stay positive.”
Since San Jose’s last playoff appearance in 2019, Sharks standard bearers like Pavelski, Thornton, Burns, Patrick Marleau, Justin Braun, and others have left.
So it was on Hertl to come down on his teammates in Nashville after goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood was basically body-slammed by Predators wing Filip Forsberg without any repercussions.
And he did, staying positive but being honest about the negative.
“We have a great group here," Hertl said. "But this can’t happen. We have to show that nobody can do anything to our goalies.”
Ferraro and San Jose coach David Quinn have seen a more vocal Hertl.
“I noticed it a little bit more this year,” Ferraro said.
“I sense a little bit of a mentality from Tomas, embracing the leadership role,” Quinn said. “We have a different locker room than we did three years ago. It's clear that it's his and Cooch's room, I think once you have that type of clarity, I think it's easy to be a leader.”
And after a slow individual start, Hertl is leading on the ice for the Sharks too. He paces San Jose with 12 points in 18 games and has three goals and four assists in his last eight.
Hertl has found some chemistry with 24-year-old Fabian Zetterlund and 21-year-old William Eklund. And the young wingers have found a mentor in the veteran center.
“He talks a lot. He tries to help Eky and me out there,” Zetterlund said. “He wants us to hold on to the puck, play in the O-zone. He tells us, don't be shy to hold onto it.”
“He thinks the game so good,” Eklund said. “It's just fun when we can talk about situations.”
“He's a good leader. He's been in the league for years and he knows exactly what to do out there, which has helped to have in the middle,” Zetterlund said. “Me and Eky, I think we can just play hockey out there. He's backing us up every time.”
“I’m always putting pressure on myself. I always want to do what is the best for the team,” Hertl acknowledged last year. “Sometimes, it’d be nice if you can just play freely.”
He’s doing a better job of that himself, and he’s certainly helping his young linemates in that regard.
It’s no coincidence that Eklund, the Sharks’ top prospect this side of Will Smith, has played his best hockey this season next to Hertl. Since joining Hertl’s side, Eklund has two goals and two assists in his last seven games, after just one goal and one assist in the first 11 games of the season, away from the 6-foot-4 centerman.
This is likely no flash in the pan either. We saw this last year, when just-acquired Jacob Peterson surprised with two goals and six assists in 11 games after the trade deadline, and in 2020-21, when just-acquired Alexander Barabanov surprised with three goals and four assists in nine games, mostly next to Hertl.
If the Sharks had 12 Tomas Hertls, they’d be a great team. That’s to say, don’t put San Jose’s slow start all on Hertl. He’s just one man, and he is leading and making his teammates better, both on and off the ice.
“He's big, he's strong. He protects pucks and he's got a great vision and he can make a pass. He's got a great understanding of the game,” Quinn said. “He demands attention because he's usually beating somebody along the wall. That draws someone else to him. So now there's an opportunity to make a play to somebody else.”
Zetterlund agreed: “When he holds onto the puck, he's just gonna find open space and he will find your tape right away.”
“Players on his wing are usually more productive than when they don't play on his wing,” Quinn said. “Just all of that, it's what makes him, I think, an elite center.”