Phenom Key to Sharks’ Great Start

As they move into the fourth week of the 2013-2014 season many NHL teams are at a crossroads, facing decisions on keeping junior prospects on the big-league club, goaltender depth charts and more. Clubs like New Jersey, Washington and the New York Rangers are scrambling to put together wins, while others like Philadelphia and Montreal are trying to overcome a slew of early-season injuries. Sitting pretty atop the NHL standings, however, are the San Jose Sharks.

Having racked up 15 points in eight games with a 7-0-1 record as of Monday, the Sharks have proven to be an elite team in the Western Conference once again. This season seems different than seasons past though, when veteran stars like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau led a high octane offense to the postseason before falling disappointingly in the early rounds.

There is a newfound excitement for the team with the astounding plus-23 goal differential. That excitement has come in the form of Tomas Hertl, the 19-year-old rookie phenom whose seven goals through eight games have put him at the top of the NHL’s goal-scoring race. Though it’s obviously a small sample size, early preseason favorites for the Calder Trophy like Seth Jones have fallen into virtual obscurity, as Hertl has taken over the race. His highlight-reel goals, especially his through-the-legs poke against the Rangers and fourth of the game on October 8th, have provided a spark for the league that’s reminiscent of Alex Ovechkin and his incredible rookie campaign.

Like Ovechkin, Hertl has garnered a lot of criticism for his flashy play and gaudy celebrations, but he’s also gained a huge following of fans across Canada and the U.S. Don Cherry of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Hockey Night in Canada has been one of Ovechkin’s most consistent and vocal critics, however, and after Hertl’s last goal against the Rangers, he sounded off once again saying Hertl shamelessly embarrassed another professional in goalie Martin Biron with his celebration in a 9-2 win.

Regardless of what traditionalists like Cherry may think about his character as a hockey player, Hertl’s performance has been nothing but beneficial for the Sharks, as they’ve dominated the Pacific Division and indeed the entire league thus far. In addition to Hertl’s play, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau are second and fourth in the league respectively in points, defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are tied for the league lead in plus-minus and goaltender Antti Niemi has been performing well with a 1.86 Goals Against Average thus far. Most impressive though is the offensive performance of the team overall. They are currently averaging just under five goals per game, and over 40 shots per game, numbers that are preposterous in today’s NHL. For perspective, last year’s leaders in goals per game and shots per game had 3.38 and 33.1, respectively.

Again, most teams have played only nine or ten games to date this season, so the question for San Jose is if they can sustain their performance. Frankly, I don’t see why they can’t. Niemi has always been solid in goal and the big guns like Thornton, Pavelski and Marleau continue to rack up buckets of points. Add in Hertl’s jump into stardom, Dan Boyle’s eventual return from his head injury and Brent Burns playing his first full season at forward, and the Sharks appear to be a lock for a top playoff seed come April.

Still, there is a ton of hockey left to be played – over five months-worth in fact – and anything can happen. The 7-1-0 Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks are proving to be forces to be reckoned with, and the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings are holding their own in the Pacific Division. With the help of Hertl, however, the Sharks look unbeatable, and there seems to be no stopping them moving into November.

Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected]u.