Tomas Hertl

Hertl finding swagger through Sharks' tough 2023-24 season

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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.

Tomas Hertl is a new man this season.

While it’s not obvious statistically – his 34 points in 48 games doesn’t even match his 63-point pace last year – it’s obvious in how he’s leading on and off the ice.

It starts with how the Sharks’ lone All-Star came to training camp.

Last year, Hertl seemed slow at times on the ice, but also weighed down mentally, whether from his new eight-year, $65.1 million contract or the Sharks losing or both. You could see it in Hertl’s at-times negative body language when things didn’t go right on the ice.

“Definitely when you get a new deal, you're putting a lot of pressure [on yourself], you want to show why you got a big deal. Sometimes, you're just overthinking things,” Hertl admitted to San Jose Hockey Now.

Hertl worked this summer on getting lighter, and not just on the ice.

“For sure, it was one of the top priorities,” the 6-foot-3, 215-pound center told the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast in training camp, on getting leaner and quicker. “But it’s more about everything. In every sport, your head is everything.”

The Sharks’ highest-paid player has turned that mental corner.

“When you get a deal, there is always doubt from somebody, and you want to always prove it. Maybe earlier [things weren't] going [well] and you just put it in your head. I had to learn it, I can't do that,” he said. “This year, from last year, I think I learned a lot.”

That breakthrough has opened everything up for Hertl.

“Be confident. When you’re confident, you feel fast. You can shoot, you can do everything,” he said in camp. “Even if it’s a bad game or a couple bad games, put it behind. Just be more free.”

That confidence has manifested itself on the ice. Per SPORTLOGiQ, Hertl is clearly stronger and quicker and lighter and…trickier.

Hertl is beating defenders at will this season, which was not the case last year. This is one of many examples, from last month in Montreal.

This is the type of freedom that Hertl is playing with this season.

“Last year, when I get the puck to the blue line, I will maybe chip it out, but now, I'm making plays,” he said, before asserting. “It’s in my skill, abilities, and size.”

Quinn saw this on the first day of camp.

“He looks very good. In fact, I haven’t seen him with a shirt on since I’ve been here because he wants to show everyone how good he looks,” he joked then. “But he looks good on the ice too. I really liked his pace today. You can tell he’s skating freely and he looks a little bit quicker.”

This swagger has permeated the Sharks' locker room.

“He's been unbelievable this year in so many ways. A tough, tough year so far for all of us,” Quinn said of the last-place Sharks. “But nobody has played better than him. Nobody's [been] more positive than him. Nobody has kind of kept this thing on the tracks.”

Hertl has also made the room his own.

“We have a different locker room than we did three years ago. I think it's clear that it’s his and Cooch’s room,” Quinn said of captain Logan Couture and alternate captain Hertl. “I think once you have that type of clarity, I think it's easy to be a leader.”

Hertl agreed: “A lot of guys [left]. Especially with Logan being a half-year out, I knew everybody will look at me and it was my job [to be] the guy and be the leader. That's why the Sharks signed me.”

Where would the Sharks be without his leadership?

It’s the league’s second-worst offense, but Hertl is the engine of it, pacing the team with 15 goals and 34 points. 

That may not sound impressive but consider that the Sharks traded 100-point defenseman Erik Karlsson and 40-goal scorer Timo Meier and have been without Couture for most of the year. Hertl’s numbers would be a lot better on a better team.

But regardless, the All-Star is shining in every way this season for the Sharks. And it’s not just on offense too.

Hertl has also gone back to being a regular on the penalty kill after a year away from it.

“He looks better. He's acting better. He's got more swagger. You name it, he's doing it better,” Quinn said.

Most importantly, Hertl knows.

“I said a couple times this year, I was pretty happy with my game. With my forecheck, my faceoffs, my battles, and creating chances for other guys,” he said. “But just kind of have confidence, just get out there, I know what I can do. That's probably what is helping because I feel like I can do way more with the puck this year than last year.”

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