As people discuss the future of former San Jose Shark Evander Kane, there’s a bigger issue on the horizon for the Sharks: the contract status, and the future, of Tomas Hertl.
The star San Jose forward will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the current NHL season, and there’s no assurance he’ll want to come back to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the past two seasons, and one that likely isn’t going to appear in the post-season this year. Hertl leads the Sharks in goal-scoring, with 20 goals in 36 games-played.
The Sharks currently sit in fifth place in the weak Pacific Division, but that’s something of a mirage; the reality is the fourth-place Calgary Flames have three games in hand on San Jose, and sixth-place Edmonton is one standings point behind the Sharks, but the Oilers have two games in hand on them. Similarly, the seventh-place Vancouver Canucks are four points behind San Jose, but the Canucks have two games in hand on the Sharks. By the time the schedule evens out, San Jose could easily fall to seventh place in the Pacific. Only the expansion Seattle Kraken (24 points) could be worse than the Sharks.
If they do fall in the standings, the Sharks would finish at or near the bottom of the standings for the third consecutive season. And GM Doug Wilson – as personable and considerate a GM as you’ll find in hockey’s top league – is currently taking a break from his duties for health reasons. So it will be difficult for Hertl to re-sign with the only NHL organization he’s ever known. The 28-year-old is in his prime, and he’s primed to secure a significant pay raise on the $5.625 million he’s making this season. Surely, there will be a bidding race for his services. And he’ll have the opportunity to join a team that’s a current frontrunner to win a Stanley Cup.
What does he have to return to if he remains in San Jose next year? Yes, there are players worth building around – forwards Logan Couture and Timo Meier, and defensemen Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are proven talents – but the Sharks do not have an elite goaltending duo in James Reimer and Adin Hill, and the bottom part of their 12 group of forwards are a wasteland. Couture, Burns, Vlasic and Karlsson all are at least 31 years old. The core is in the back nine of their NHL careers, and nobody in the Sharks organization is about to replace what they bring to the lineup.
If he does choose to stay a Shark, Hertl will have to carry a large load, both on offense and in the dressing room. As players like Couture (32 years old), Burns (36), Vlasic (34) and Karlsson (31) begin to drop-off as frontline performers, the burden on Hertl will grow. Does he want that, when he could go to work somewhere else, play a key, but secondary role, and contribute potentially even more offense with better teammates? You could certainly understand if he wanted out. He wouldn’t be the first player to step away from the team that drafted him. It’s in a player’s competitive nature to be drawn to winning. That’s not a guarantee in San Jose. That’s not the way it used to be for the Sharks, but losing has consequences, and one of them is that you’re less attractive as a destination for free agents – both UFAs from other teams, and for UFAs of their own.
It may come to be that Hertl prefers to stick around San Jose, and try to be there when the Sharks turn the corner and again become Cup frontrunners. But at this crucial point in his career, Hertl should and likely will be a businessman first. He can play out this season, and walk away for nothing in return. That has to play on Sharks management, too. Do you trade Hertl before the March 21 trade deadline? Who knows – maybe he’s a short-term rental for a Cup contender, and he comes back to San Jose in the summer. Stranger things have happened. But one thing is certain: the spotlight will shine brightly on Hertl until he makes a decision on his long-term status.
Stay in beautiful California, and lose, or leave the Sharks and pick out a new employer that best suits his needs? The choice is not clear, but it’ll clear up as the next couple of months play out. One way or another, Hertl’s personal situation will come to a crossroads very soon.