SAN JOSE — San Jose signed pending restricted free agent forward Tomas Hertl to a two-year contract Thursday worth a reported $6 million, keeping one of the team’s top young players in the fold as the Sharks try to build on last season’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
The 22-year-old Hertl is coming off his best season as a pro, having recorded career highs with 21 goals and 25 assists in 81 games. He thrived when moved to the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski in the middle of the season and was a big reason behind San Jose’s postseason success.
“I won’t even put a limit on him,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “He just gets better and better. He’s a big, strong guy. … When we drafted him, we expected him to be a dominant player and so does he. He has high expectations for himself. He loves to play the game. You can see that smile on his face. It’s contagious.”
Hertl got off to a fast start as a rookie in 2013-14, scoring 15 goals in 35 games before being sidelined by a knee injury. He returned late that season and struggled to regain that form in his second year as a pro.
But after scoring just four goals in his first 37 games last season when he played both center and wing, Hertl surged when moved to the top line as a wing alongside Thornton and Pavelski. Hertl had 17 goals and 14 assists in the final 44 games and was productive in the playoffs as well with six goals and five assists in 20 games.
Hertl injured his right knee late in Game 2 of the final against Pittsburgh and his absence the rest of the way played a role in San Jose’s six-game loss to the Penguins.
The Sharks expect him to pick up where he left off when next season starts.
“We think this guy is a high-end player,” Wilson said. “When you have that physical gift with the size and the hockey sense that he has. But he has this love of the game that all the top players have. Throw that combination together and we think he’ll be a great player. We really do. Big games and big situations he likes to step up. We missed him when he was out against Pittsburgh. There’s no doubt.”
Wilson said he expects to have conversations next summer with Hertl about a longer-term deal but both sides thought it was best to opt for a “bridge” contract because of Hertl’s potential to emerge into a star. He will be eligible to be a restricted free agent when this deal is done in 2018.
“It’s good for me too because now I have two years to show my best hockey and show I can play longer here with the Sharks,” Hertl said. “It’s on me. It’s better to sign the contract and we’ll see the next two years how I play.”
Hertl said he is progressing well from the injury suffered in the final and will not need surgery. He said he expects to be 100 percent by the time the season starts but is not sure if he will be healthy enough to play for his native Czech Republic in the World Cup in September.
Wilson said he is having talks with two other pending restricted free agents: forward Matt Nieto and defenseman Dylan DeMelo. Wilson previously said he will let pending unrestricted free agents Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, James Reimer and Dainius Zubrus hit the market on Friday.