Sharks

Sharks' Tomas Hertl vows to be 'better than before' after knee injury

Sharks' Tomas Hertl vows to be 'better than before' after knee injury

Tomas Hertl stood before the media just a few weeks after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee and vowed to be ready by Sharks training camp. That seemed like a bold proclamation at the time, a promise his rehab should let him live up to.

The All-Star center provided a progress report on his physical condition during a Thursday video conference with the media, saying he’ll be ready for the 2020-21 campaign even if it starts as scheduled in October.

Dropping the puck on time seems highly unlikely after the NHL hit pause on the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic and announced plans to pick it back up with a modified, 24-team playoff format. That could push next season further into the winter, allowing Hertl to downshift his rehab some and focus on getting strong over getting back on the ice.

“I can do almost anything,” Hertl said. “I am able to run, not full speed, but I can do almost everything I was doing before. I was actually surprised about that after not even four months. If we knew the season was starting in October, I would probably start skating in a few weeks. If there’s extra time it might help me, but I think I would be ready for the season even if it starts when it always does. I should be 100 percent ready for next season whenever it happens.”

[RELATED: Sharks' path back to Stanley Cup contention filled with major hurdles]

Well in line to keep his initial promise, Hertl went a step further Thursday by saying he’s not just looking to regain previous form. He wants to improve upon it.

That would be good news for the Sharks and would continue the 26-year old’s steady ascent as a top-shelf player. He has improved considerably in recent seasons while beginning to maximize great talent, becoming a vital component of the Sharks attack.

Hertl considers this latest knee injury as a speedbump, not a permanent roadblock. He has dealt with knee issues before and always comes back strong. This experience, he says, should be no different.

[RELATED: What you need to know as Sharks long season ends]

“I feel like I have proved the past couple years that I can be one of the top players, one of the top centers on the team,” Hertl said. “I want to keep working on that. I have had some setbacks, but I’m not scared about it. I always come back. The experience has made me stronger. I am taking [this rehab] like another challenge.

“I was named an All-Star and it was a great experience for me, and it makes me want to go back. I want to be there for my team, and that’s why I have been working every day for four months even with the season so far away. My next goal is getting back and being better than before. I know I can do it. I have to give it everything I can to get back.”

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

The Sharks seem somewhat set at the top of the right side of their defensive depth chart, at least for now.

Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are established veterans, with three Norris Trophies and nearly 1,300 NHL points combined. They're also 35 and 30, respectively, in a league that is becoming increasingly youth-driven. The future quickly becomes the present in the salary cap-driven NHL, and contributors on rookie contracts are among the most valuable commodities in the sport.

San Jose arguably had an eye towards that future even before general manager Doug Wilson traded for Karlsson. Nearly three months prior, the Sharks drafted right-handed defenseman Ryan Merkeley with the No. 21 overall pick. Now, just over two years later, Merkley is the team's top prospect entering his first professional season, and the Sharks are "very happy" with his progress.

"He's just a hockey rat who wants to be at the rink, and those are the types of guys we want to work with," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. 

Wilson Jr. said Merkeley's love of the sport stood out before and after the Sharks drafted him in 2018. The Sharks executive noticed Merkeley lingering on the bench at the NHL scouting combine that year, catching up with his peers well after his workout session was completed. Merkley also stuck around in Dallas after he became the first first-round defenseman taken by San Jose in five years, sitting in the team's suite at the American Airlines Center on the draft's second day and chatting with former development coach (and current Sharks assistant) Mike Ricci.

That, combined with Merkley's high-end skill, made the defenseman an easy choice for the Sharks despite concerns about his attitude and defensive game. San Jose drafted Merkley as a 17-year-old, and he would be traded twice in his last two seasons in the OHL. Merkley settled in with the London Knights this past season, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) and leading the Knights to first place in the Western Conference when the season was suspended -- and eventually canceled -- due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wilson Jr. has previously said he felt Merkley made strides on defense, and the Sharks will continue to work with him up close. Whether Merkley starts next season in the NHL or the AHL with the Barracuda, he'll develop under the front office's close watch in San Jose.

"At the draft (in 2018), I think what I was saying was you can't teach Merkley's skill, so that's when you have to really dig in and learn about the kid more to see if he has what it takes to learn, and be coachable, and progress the rest of his game and build that foundation," Wilson Jr. said. "And in our opinion he did, so we're excited to have him part of our future and have him turn pro this year."

[RELATED: What Sharks fans should know about Stanley Cup playoffs]

Merkley will be one to watch whenever the Sharks convene for training camp. San Jose has no right-shooting defenseman signed beyond this season other than Burns and Karlsson, yet it's fair to wonder if the 20-year-old would be better served logging big minutes in all situations for the Barracuda to start his pro career.

No matter which level Merkley begins at next season, the Sharks' future beyond Burns and Karlsson will be here sooner than you think.

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer must be a strange experience for Sharks fans.

Sure, it's weird for every hockey fan watching games played in front of empty arenas in the middle of August during a global pandemic. But Sharks fans haven't spent much of the last few years as passive postseason observers, advancing to at least the Western Conference final in two of the four years preceding 2020.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines now that the playoff field has been whittled down to 16 teams. Which should Sharks fans pay attention to? Here's a guide to the postseason for San Jose supporters.

The Villains

Sharks fans' rooting interests in the playoffs can be best described as "Anyone but the Vegas Golden Knights." Not only did San Jose and Vegas square off in the last two postseasons, but the Golden Knights now are coached by former Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.

You'd have a difficult time convincing teal diehards to root for Chicago in the first round, considering how many times "Chelsea Dagger" played in the Original Six franchise's Western Conference final sweep of the Sharks a decade ago. But when the alternative is seeing the DeBoer-led Golden Knights march toward a Stanley Cup, Sharks fans have an easy choice.

The Familiar Faces

My colleague in content Brian Witt highlighted some of the biggest former Sharks still playing for a Stanley Cup. Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski -- that's still odd to type -- leads the list, but there are quite a few players who once donned teal who are playing for hockey's ultimate prize.

The Eastern Conference could lead to some difficult rooting choices for Sharks fans, though. It's likely that two of the Philadelphia Flyers (Justin Braun), Tampa Bay Lightning (Barclay Goodrow) and Washington Capitals (Brenden Dillon) will square off, and each player still is looking for their first ring.

[RELATED: How Sharks benefit from Rangers winning NHL draft lottery]

The Jokes

Somewhat surprisingly, the NHL really has leaned into the weirdness of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs being played in two buildings -- Edmonton's Rogers Place and Toronto's Scotiabank Arena -- for audiences watching from their couches. There has been a tribute to the "fans" in attendance, a ban on the wave and even multiple appearances from designated hat throwers when a player scores a hat trick.

The NHL had to postpone a playoff game because Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena went to five overtimes. Columbus' official account then tweeted this.

The Sharks had some fun with it, too. Collectively commiserating over the playoffs' fundamental strangeness is going to lead to a lot more over the next couple months, even if San Jose isn't a part of the postseason.