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Inside the Cage: Waiting on Return of Versatile Hertl

Hertl Has Earned Coaches Trust, Averaging a Career-High 18:14 TOI Per Game

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks have won both games since losing the services of Tomas Hertl, but they know they are tempting fate already playing without fellow top-six forward Joe Thornton.

That's why San Jose hopes to have their versatile 24-year-old power forward back in the lineup soon. The Sharks placed Hertl on Injured Reserve on Monday, but if it's retroactive to when he sustained the injury - and he feels up to it - he could return as soon as Tuesday when the team opens a pivotal four-game trip in St. Louis.

Hertl has been just that important to the team this season.

"He's become a very valuable player for us," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said.

Hertl has emerged to not only fill a portion of the scoring void created with the offseason departure of Patrick Marleau, but he's developed into one of the most versatile forwards on the team.

Hertl can line up on the wing or at center. He used in all situations - on the power play, on penalty kill, late in games when the Sharks are up by a goal or if they're down by one. That's why in addition to all the things Hertl has earned the coaches trust in doing, his ice time has increase to a career-high 18:14 per game.

"I know I'm not a rookie any more, it's my fifth year already and I know how the game goes," Hertl said. "I feel really good about my game. Pete plays me every night almost 20 minutes, in all situations, and I'm really happy because it's going pretty good for me."

Everything was going great until he had to leave Tuesday's 2-1 loss to visiting Arizona early after taking a tumble along the end boards while chasing down a loose puck. Up to that point, Hertl was the team's second-leading goal-scorer with 15 and on pace to eclipse his career-high 21 set in 2015-16.

The good news is Hertl was practicing again on Saturday so it appears he's very close to returning. The injury bug is something Hertl wants to avoid. If it were not for a pair of knee injuries earlier in his career, Hertl would probably have inherited the bigger role he now possesses much earlier.

"The only thing that has maybe kept him from arriving here a little bit earlier is injuries," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "And hopefully we're past that."

Healthy last offseason, Hertl dedicated himself to getting stronger with daily visits to the gym. In addition to building his stamina for the grind of a full season, the demands of his position called for the extra work.

Video: SJS@OTT: Hertl goes top shelf on breakaway for SHG

"For sure the summer was really good because I got way stronger and that's what I need to be a power forward," Hertl said. "To be able to hold on to pucks you have to get stronger all the time because the defense is big and strong and now they know me. It wasn't like at first when no one knows - it's just some kid - now they know and they try to go even harder against me."

Hertl's added muscle and strength has helped to improve other facets if his game. As much as he has shown potential to play center, Hertl has been more of a force on left wing. He's developed chemistry with center Logan Couture. And when the two are on the ice it gives DeBoer a pair of options in the faceoff circle.

Hertl's proficiency in the circle has led to an increase in taking an average of faceoffs to more than 14 per game, which is up significantly from an average of 9.7 last year and 5.6 the year before.

Offensively, Hertl continues to show an uptick in goal-scoring. Two-thirds through the regular-season schedule he's on pace to at least match his career-high 21 goals and 46 points scored in 2015-16 when he appeared in 81 games.

"I've got the body to be powerful, but it's not easy because you have to do a lot of work in the corners," Hertl admitted. "I try to get a good forecheck - sometimes it hurts - but it's my game."

Hertl has done everything asked of him, and he's seeing the results. And, of course, he continues to do it every day with that ever-present smile on his face.

"It's rewarding because of what a great kid he is," DeBoer said of Hertl's positive impact. "He shows up every day with a smile on his face. He wants to work and get better. He's a team guy."

"You always want to see those type of guys have success. And usually they do. They usually find a way to have success because of those characteristics they bring to the rink."

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