If you ask hockey folk around the NHL, most fans and experts will tell you that the Sharks’ window to win the Stanley Cup has been closed shut.
If you’re a Sharks fan (like this writer is) and you argue otherwise, you will probably get criticized for wearing “teal-colored glasses.”
However, the bottom line is the Sharks still feature many of the same key pieces that led them to their first ever Stanley Cup final in 2015.
Yes, Patrick Marleau is gone, and big names like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Paul Martin and Joel Ward are all deeper into their thirties.
But a team with Thornton and Logan Couture as its top-two centers, Martin Jones as its goaltender and either Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Brent Burns on the ice for 45-plus minutes a night is an easy matchup for ummm….nobody.
The Sharks missing the playoffs certainly wouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but another deep playoff run shouldn’t surprise folks either.
If the Sharks are to be successful this season, they will need to drastically improve their scoring depth. While there are a number of players who can help improve in that area, one of them in particular has the individual power to make the Sharks scary good. But if he struggles, the Sharks will basically be swimming up a creek without their sticks.
Who am I talking about?
For those unfamiliar with Hertl’s career thus far, well, were you living under a rock during his rookie year of 2013-14? Hertl exploded onto the scene with a four-goal performance in just his third ever game against the New York Rangers.
Hertl went on to score 15 goals in his first 37 games before Dustin Brown ended his season with an “accidental” knee-on-knee collision.
The following year was a sophomore slump in 2014-15 with just 31 points in 82-games. In Hertl’s defense, the Sharks as a team stunk up the joint that season. It was the first year in over a decade that they ended up missing the playoffs.
Hertl bounced bounce back the following year to the tune of 25 goals and 21 assists for 46-points, mostly on a line with Thornton and Joe Pavelski. The Czech native added another six goals and five assists for 11 points in 20 games during San Jose's historic playoff run. He was without a doubt the Sharks’ best player in the first two games of the final against Pittsburgh. Unfortunately an injury forced him to miss the rest of the series.
That all brings us to last year where another knee injury limited Hertl to just 49 games. He posted a rather disappointing 22 points. While Hertl played a mix of center and wing in 2016-17, it appears like the Sharks brass want him to cement himself as a third-line center who can turn that line into a dependable scoring unit.
Most of Hertl’s damage has been done on Thornton’s wing, but he certainly posseses the necessary skills to be a difference maker as the third-line pivot. He has demonstrated in the past that he can be a strong play driver from the center position. Unfortunately, that possession has yet to lead to big production. This season though, he is likely to have some talented forwards on his wings. My current projection is that Hertl opens up the season centering 2015 first-round pick Timo Meier on his left and the speedy Mikkel Boedker on his right.
Meier only posted six points in 33 games as a rookie last season and will be highly motivated to break through this year. Boedker meanwhile will be extremely motivated to put his sub-par first season in teal behind him. Both these wingers have the talent to go over 50 points. Meier probably won’t get there yet, but if he lives up to his potential, he will be a 55-plus-point NHLer in the future. Boedker on the other hand has twice reached the 50-point plateau in just five-full seasons. He was also on pace to go over 50 points in 2014-15 before an injury limited him to just 45 games.
Going into his fifth season, the time is now for the soon-to-be-24-year-old Hertl to take that next step. He has to stay healthy and produce big offensive numbers if the Sharks are to be successful season. Hertl is more than capable of being a 55-plus-point scorer, particularly if he gets top unit power play time (which he should). Guys like Meier and Boedker, as well as other forwards like Kevin Labanc and Joonas Donskoi will certainly contribute, but none of them should be expected to be a major difference maker this season. Meier has the highest potential out of that group, but he is only entering his second year and is still just 20-years old.
Hertl however, has to be a difference maker this season. He is right at that prime age where NHL forwards usually post their highest point totals. His ability to both protect pucks in the corners, make plays, and finish should allow him to carry a major portion of the Sharks offense. A 60-plus-point season would not shock me one bit, but neither would a 30-point season due to either injury or early season struggles and then a lack of confidence. As Hertl goes this season, so will the Sharks. His performance will be absolutely crucial.