It seems like only a few short years ago that Tomas Hertl was a rambunctious rookie making headlines with a four-goal outburst three nights into his NHL career. Fast forward to the here and now, and the 28-year-old’s quietly logged nearly a decade in San Jose, still dazzling with wraparound OT clinchers all these years later.
Over the course of his nine years in California, Hertl has emerged as one of San Jose’s vital weapons. It's been much of the same this season, as he's second on the club with 23 goals and 43 points through 57 games, behind only Timo Meier. That effort’s given Hertl the fourth 20-goal campaign of his career with the season's home stretch still to go — he showed the full weight of his offensive potential back in 2018-19, though, when he amassed 35 goals and 74 points for the Sharks.
And yet, heading into the NHL’s 2022 trade deadline, Hertl remains one of the most intriguing names that could be in line for a jersey swap.
The buzz around a potential Hertl trade started in the summer. With the centreman heading into this final season of the four-year deal he signed in 2018, which carries a $5.625-million cap hit, the young Czech pivot told outlet iDNES.cz back home: “I wonder if San Jose will want to re-sign me, and if I’ll want to stay there. I’ll start the season and see how it turns out.”
The season’s been started, the points have been collected, and Hertl remains without a Sharks extension heading into the final weeks before the deadline. The key question here is the first one Hertl himself posed, whether San Jose can afford to keep him and what's sure to be a hefty raise in town.
The club has more room to operate than previously expected after parting ways with forward Evander Kane, that separation opening up $7 million of cap space for the next three years. That should be enough to keep Hertl in the mix. But there’s also his other question — whether he wants to remain in San Jose, coming off two straight missed post-seasons, or test free agency at season’s end.
The latest reports suggest the Sharks are pushing hard to keep their young pivot, and all signs seem to point to him remaining in teal. That said, if a deal doesn’t get done and the Sharks opt to trade Hertl to avoid risking losing him for nothing, he becomes a game-changer of an addition for a team in the playoff mix.
Hertl has a fair amount of control in the matter, with a modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit a three-team trade list, per CapFriendly. So, what might his options look like?
As we noted in our look at potential landing spots for one of the trade market’s other intriguing forwards, veteran sniper Phil Kessel, the Bruins have found their way to the buyers list by leaving more to be desired in terms of overall offence this season.
Though the club’s top six isn’t short on marquee talent, Boston’s depth further down the lineup doesn’t leave them level with the league’s true contenders. The group is having a tough time putting pucks in the net — despite averaging the fifth-most shots per game of any NHL club, they’re mired in the bottom half of the league when it comes to actually converting, sitting 16th with 3.02 goals per game.
In Hertl, the B's could bring in another consistent goal-scoring threat — the young centreman’s 22 goals would already rank him third among the Bruins scorers, trailing only David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. But the true value Hertl could provide Boston would come in where exactly he would slot into the lineup.
For how dominant Boston’s top line has long looked, the situation is less rosy down the middle of the ice after franchise icon Patrice Bergeron. That’s particularly troublesome for the second unit, which features Erik Haula between All-Star wingers Pastrnak and Taylor Hall. There’s no question Hertl would be a notable upgrade there alongside his countryman, filling the void left by another fellow Czech, David Krejci.
From Hertl’s perspective, it would be tough to find a better position to walk into — a 2C role alongside two supremely skilled wingers. For the Bruins, they would get added scoring punch, one more penalty killer to add to an already solid group, and another piece to potentially build around moving forward.
The Avalanche are already well-stocked for a deep run, seemingly every bit a bona fide contender looking to make that final leap. For them, it’s less about big-picture changes and more about shoring up holes, filling out depth and beefing up to protect against the unexpected.
If Colorado wants to stockpile even more offensive firepower, Hertl would do the trick, and adding another 20-goal-scorer to a group that already has six players near or above that mark can’t hurt. But the more intriguing aspect for the Avs might be the fact that he brings that offensive potential with quality two-way ability as well.
And then there's the special-teams situation. How many quality clubs have we seen crumble in key post-season moments because of suspect special-teams play? For all the Avs' offensive glory, they're struggling on the penalty kill, ranking 21st in the league, a disaster waiting to happen when they inevitably come up against a fellow contender with a top-tier power play down the line. One of Hertl's greatest strength is his versatility, the fact he can line up at centre or on the wing, that he can see ice for both special-teams units — valuable potential for a team such as Colorado with a deep forward corps and a woeful PK.
He'd bring value in the faceoff circle, too. It might seem trivial, but the Avs rank second-last in the league when it comes to winning draws, with Gabriel Landeskog the only Colorado pivot winning well over 50 per cent. Hertl's on par with the Avs captain, and having more success in that area than anyone else in Avalanche colours. For a club that already seems to have the big questions answered, tinkering with solutions to smaller problems like these isn't a bad route to take.
There’s another factor beyond this season to consider, too. The Avs have some serious cap questions to navigate in the near future. With zero goalies signed after 2021-22 and Nathan MacKinnon in need of monstrous extension a year from now, will Colorado be able to afford an extension for Nazem Kadri? The former Maple Leaf is a UFA at the end of the year and, amid a career season, will be worth double what he’s making now. If Kadri prices himself out of Denver, Hertl could be an interesting long-term solution to fill that 2C hole.
It only takes a brief glance at the Wild’s depth chart to see what’s separating them from reaching the next level.
The club’s talent on the wings is undeniable, but it’s tough to see them taking down one of the league’s top-tier teams in a seven-game series without an upgrade at centre. And that's particularly important for Minnesota, given they have an all-world winger in Kirill Kaprizov, an elite talent who could be even greater playing alongside the calibre of running mate he deserves.
That isn’t news to GM Bill Guerin, who was reportedly in on the hunt for Jack Eichel before the Golden Knights landed the former Sabres pivot. Taking the next step in Minnesota requires a bona fide No. 1 centre, and if the asked return for someone of Eichel’s calibre was too great, the only other realistic option is finding someone just a tier below, who would be a clear upgrade, but wouldn’t require selling off quite as much of the future.
The Sharks pivot could bring added goal-scoring to the mix — his 22 goals would rank third on the club — and, playing alongside one of the most dynamic scorers in the game, you’d have to think he’d have a chance at raising his scoring pace back to the level that bagged him 35 goals a few years ago.
As with the Avs, his proficiency in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill could help Minnesota, too — the Wild rank third-last in the league in the former category, with none of their centres besting Hertl's 54 per-cent success rate, and 23rd in the league in the latter category.
Eventually, the Wild need a long-term answer down the middle, and Hertl seems as good an option as any.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Everything’s been coming up Rangers over the past few seasons, from the lottery picks to the arrival of Artemi Panarin — and his rise to MVP calibre — to the steady growth of their core players and the unexpected progress made by other mainstays.
That latter note is especially key this season, as the Rangers have a perfect storm on their hands in Chris Kreider and Igor Shesterkin.
Kreider has already put up a career-high 38 goals through 58 games, leaving him on pace for more than 50 goals by season’s end. Shesterkin’s ridiculous .939 save percentage is pacing the league, a performance so dominant he’s worked his way into Hart Trophy conversations. If New York is looking to go all-in on taking the next step with this group, now seems the time, as two key pieces of their core have found the top form of their careers.
The path to doing that might come at centre. For all the progress the Rangers have made over the past few seasons, there’s a sense there’s still more room to grow before they’re on par with the true contenders around them. While Mika Zibanejad gives the team everything it needs as the No. 1 option down the middle, Hertl could serve as a worthwhile upgrade on the second line, his dynamic skill seeming a potentially dangerous fit alongside Panarin. Meanwhile, the move would push Ryan Strome down to beef up the club's bottom six, or to the wing to keep the top six rolling.
Either way, the Rangers have never looked more ready to graduate from up-and-comer to contender, and bringing in a consistent goal-scorer with two-way talent seems a worthy bridge to that promised land.
Here, we have the other side of that path. The Penguins are winding down after a lengthy stint as contenders in the East, though with plenty of tumult along the way, and might just have one last deep run in them.
After adding Jeff Carter last season, there was a sense Pittsburgh was heading back to the playoffs with perhaps its best roster since the back-to-back championship run. A few crucial errors by netminder Tristan Jarry undid that potential, but returning with a similar group in 2021-22, there’s something brewing in the Steel City that seems greater than simply the chance for success brought on by having Nos. 87 and 71 on the roster.
What’s different for Pittsburgh this time around is that the Penguins are approaching the playoffs with much uncertainty ahead. Franchise icons Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are both unrestricted free agents after this season, as is key depth piece Bryan Rust. It’s tough to see those three leaving town in the end, particularly Malkin and Letang, but with a new front office calling the shots and age not on their side, who knows what the future holds?
Which brings us to Hertl. If there’s any sense that this could be the last ride for the Sidney Crosby-Malkin-Letang trio in Pittsburgh, adding Hertl to the mix could be worth the gamble.
There’s a natural spot for him, too — Carter has been great at centre for the Pens, but he’s looked good on the wing alongside Malkin, too. The Penguins faithful need no reminders of what their team can do with a quality 3C behind Crosby and Malkin — Jordan Staal and Nick Bonino’s Stanley Cup rings are evidence enough — and Hertl could undoubtedly fit that bill, bringing goal-scoring to the bottom six while giving the Malkin unit an upgrade on the wing with Carter pushed up the lineup.
OTHER WILD-CARD OPTIONS
• Florida Panthers: The Panthers have enough reason to go all-in on this year, too, the club looking dominant this season and every bit a legit contender. Hertl could look great as a 3C boost playing alongside Sam Reinhart. And who doesn’t want to see him reunited with Jumbo Joe Thornton?
• Calgary Flames: In a similar vein, the Flames also have reason to push all their chips to the middle of the table, with the club turning in an impressive season. Like Pittsburgh, they have plenty of uncertainty sitting beyond the horizon as Johnny Gaudreau — who’s played like the Flames’ MVP — will hit free agency when the season comes to an end. They already made one big move, but if Calgary wants to make the most of their shot, Hertl would look great alongside recent acquisition Tyler Toffoli on the second line, or on the third with Andrew Mangiapane.
• Vegas Golden Knights: At this point, they’re a required addition to any conversation about a star player potentially being available. There would be no shortage of questions: How would they make the money work? Where would Hertl slot into their lineup? How does the Sharks-Golden Knights rivalry factor into where San Jose would trade him? None of it is clear, but the Golden Knights have Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo and Max Pacioretty in their lineup at the moment, so best not to fully count them out.