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Sharks' Hertl relishing fresh start under new coach

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- One of San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer's messages to his players at the start of training camp was that their slates were wiped clean and they had an opportunity to impress him without any prejudices.

One could make a case that nobody on the roster took that message to heart more than center Tomas Hertl, who is getting to play the position he prefers and is feeling as though his career in San Jose has begun anew.

"Last season, it was a little bit tough for me, I messed up," said Hertl, who has two goals and an assist through six games. "Now, it's a new season, a new start, I start at center. I think I'm better at center and I like it more too. I feel great now."

Hertl blamed himself for, as he said, messing up. He said he put too much pressure on himself to have a strong second season after such a promising start to his rookie season, including his four-goal, highlight-reel game against the New York Rangers on Oct. 8, 2013.

A knee injury derailed Hertl in his rookie season. Inconsistency was the culprit for his struggles last season, when he had 13 goals and 31 points in 82 games. Hertl scored 15 goals and 25 points in 37 games as a rookie.

"After the first season, I had a great start, a couple goals, and then it just became too much thinking," Hertl said. "I don't know, it's a little bit maybe media too, thinking about me, expectations, saying it's Tomas Hertl's second season and what could I do. Every night I missed a puck. I'd go left, it would go right. Just too much thinking, too much for my head. It was a pretty hard time for me.

"This season, I came in with a free head and thinking about just playing hard and not thinking that it's my last year of my contract. Just play hard."

It helped Hertl that DeBoer put him at center, his natural position. He fluctuated between wing and center last season under former Sharks coach Todd McLellan because there were games when he would skate well and games when he wouldn't.

When Hertl would be on his game and skating well, McLellan would play him at center. When he wasn't doing that, he'd be on the wing.

McLellan said last season he thought Hertl would eventually become a top center in San Jose, but first he'd have to get the inconsistency out of his game.

DeBoer feels he's doing that early this season.

"I like him [at center]," DeBoer said. "He's gotten better every game defensively. He's playing with more composure and more confidence every game. It's almost impossible to find 6-foot-3, 215-pound centerman. It's not a position you pick up quickly but he's getting better every night.

"In the previous coach's defense, some guys aren't ready for that responsibility yet and sometimes you have to grow into that. But he came back ready. He's in great shape. He's confident, feels good, and he's running with the opportunity."

Hertl relishes the challenge of playing center.

"You have the puck more, you're skating and you keep skating," he said. "I think it's a little bit harder because you need to be good at faceoffs and in the 'D' zone. I like the challenge. Most of the best [forwards] in the NHL now are centers, so this is a pretty good challenge for me."

He said all of that with a smile because he's confident now. He's rejuvenated.

As much as the Sharks have a new coach, this seems to be less about who is behind the bench and more about Hertl. He had a tough second season in the NHL, learned from it, and now appears better for it.

"I start over," Hertl said.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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