The timing of contract negotiations couldn't have been better for San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl.
The 22-year-old was fifth on the Sharks in scoring with 21 goals and 25 assists in 81 games last season to help San Jose reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. But Hertl believes that he can improve on those numbers and put himself in a better position for future negotiations.
Hertl signed a two-year contract with the Sharks on June 30. The contract has an average annual value of $3 million, according to TSN.
"I was very happy about the contract. Everyone agreed with that deal and I'm looking forward to the next years with the Sharks," Hertl said Thursday, shortly after returning home to the Czech Republic. "I was excited when I heard about the deal. I wanted to celebrate it instantly with my parents, but I had to stay in California at that time.
"Of course, a long-term contract would give me more security. But I think this might help me at the end. I believe I can get even more ice time in the next season and I'll have a better chance to break through. And I feel that after those two years, I can sign a long-term and [bigger] contract. I'm glad I have a chance to fight for it and to make my position on the team even stronger during that time."
Hertl's role in San Jose grew significantly in January after Sharks coach Peter DeBoer moved him from third-line center to first-line left wing alongside Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. The three found chemistry almost instantly; Hertl went from a 0.38 point-per-game average in his first 37 games to 0.73 in his last 44. He had six goals and 11 points in 20 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"I was really glad Coach gave me a chance to play on the first line and he gave me a lot of ice time too," Hertl said. "I kind of started scoring as well. And when you score, everything gets easier. The first game with [Thornton and Pavelski], I scored two goals and three points and everything turned around. We won [five] games in a row, I felt I skated better and suddenly everything got a lot easier.
"I can only say positive things about the second half of the season. We reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in Sharks history. Just two more steps, two wins we were missing."
Hertl was among the better players for San Jose in the first two games of the Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He scored the Sharks' first goal in Game 1 and was playing well in Game 2 until he sustained a knee injury that kept him out for the remainder of the series. Pittsburgh won in six games.
The injury kept Hertl in San Jose for another three weeks after the Final; the Sharks medical staff wanted to monitor the knee, which Hertl injured during the 2013-14 season following a hit from Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown.
Hertl was still wearing a knee immobilizer upon his arrival in Prague, but his injury is expected to heal before the Sharks open training camp in September.
"It's not easy to [injure] the same knee that I had problems with a couple of years ago," Hertl said. "But the first time, the injury was much more serious. This one shouldn't be a problem for the future. It's just uncomfortable now, I've been wearing [the immobilizer] for a long time and it's been bothering me when sleeping a bit, but I have to keep it just for one more week. After that, I'm going to throw it away and start exercising."
Hertl wants to make sure not to hurry back into action, and wants to strengthen the muscles around it to avoid similar injuries.
That means his participation at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with Team Czech Republic remains in question. It could be a big problem for head coach Josef Jandac, who might also miss his top playmaker, Boston Bruins center David Krejci, who is recovering from hip surgery. The tournament begins Sept. 17.
"I'd like to manage it in time. I would love to be a part of the Czech team at such a great tournament," Hertl said. "But I don't want to rush it and play there while being at 80 percent or something like that; that could only hurt me and it could hurt the team as well. Let's see how it's going to be in a couple of weeks after I get to stretch it to the full extent.
"They told me in San Jose that the healing process has been going well. [Sharks general manager Doug Wilson] said that he would be pleased if someone from his team would represent his own country. But at the same time, he didn't want to let me play at the World Cup with an injury."