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Sharks' Hertl more comfortable since move to center

by Eric Gilmore /

SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl can't say he wasn't warned about the danger of a sophomore slump.

As a rookie last season, Hertl scored six goals in his first three games, including four against the New York Rangers. He had 15 goals and 25 points in his first 32 games before damaging two ligaments in his right knee on Dec. 19 during a collision with Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown that kept him out until late in the season.

This season, Hertl has eight goals and 17 points through 47 games entering the Sharks' game Wednesday against the Kings at SAP Center (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

"Everybody thought it would be a harder season for me," Hertl said. "For some guys it's hard. For some guys it's OK. For me I think it's hard. Maybe before the season, maybe it was in my head that this season I needed to play good because of last season. Maybe it was just in my head. Maybe I put a little bit of pressure on myself."

What Hertl described as an up and down season is trending higher, just in time for his latest confrontation with the rival Kings. He has a goal and an assist in his past four games, and it's no coincidence that Hertl's resurgence coincides with his move from wing to center.

Hertl played his first NHL game at center on Jan 13 against the Arizona Coyotes, filling in on the fourth line for Andrew Desjardins, who missed the game for the birth of his son, Ames. Hertl scored a goal in San Jose's 3-2 victory and has played four straight games at center, the past two on the third line.

"I like to play center," said Hertl, who was chosen by the Sharks in the first round (No. 17) of the 2012 NHL Draft out of the Czech Republic. "I've played it all my life. It's more comfortable. I like it. I think the last couple games I feel much better than before. At center, most of the time, there's more skating. It's almost never stopping. At wing it's more stopping. It's more of a chance for me to move my feet. It's much better."

Hertl's teammates have noticed the difference.

"He's moving his legs really well right now," said forward Matt Nieto, also in his second NHL season. "He's skating good and he's playing center right now. I know he's comfortable in that position. He's told me that he's played center all his life until here. You can tell he's comfortable there, and he's playing really good hockey.

"He looks really strong in his skates right now. I think he's really doing a good job of protecting pucks and owning it in the offensive zone. He's skating better. It seems he's got more jump in his step. He can really see it."

In the Sharks' 5-2 loss Monday to the New Jersey Devils, each member of the third line (Hertl, Nieto and Tyler Kennedy) had a point. Nieto scored a second-period goal, and the assists went to Kennedy and Hertl.

"I think he looks pretty good there," Kennedy said of Hertl. "There's still a lot of hockey to be played, but he looks good there, he looks like he's confident there. He plays well positionally."

Tomas Hertl
Center - SJS
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 17
SOG: 80 | +/-: -2
After having knee surgery in December 2013, Hertl returned for the final two regular-season games and played in all seven games of the Sharks' first-round loss to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But his surgically repaired knee was far from 100 percent during that stretch and it continued to limit his offseason workout program.

"I still don't think [he's] where he needs to be," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I think there's more there. We kind of drilled this point about three weeks or a month ago where this summer was not the summer he needed to have because of injury, and he was fighting it.

"He's committed to doing it. It just takes some time, and the League knows the Hertl name now. It didn't know the Hertl name early in the season last year."

Hertl said he's putting less pressure on himself than he did early in the season, thanks in large part to advice from family members who reminded him that he's still very young. Hertl was 19 when he made his NHL debut and turned 21 on Nov. 12

"Now it's just play and have fun," Hertl said. "Now it's better. I think it's fine now."

Hertl said he feels stronger now than when he reported to training camp and he expects to continue making strides.

"I need maybe another summer because I think I'm still growing, still almost nothing," Hertl said, smiling as he pointed to a lack of facial hair. "I'm still young. I hope to be much, much stronger. Just keep working. I feel so much better than the start of the season."

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