Two years ago, little was known about Tomáš Hertl, then a 16-year-old center for the junior team of Slavia Prague. That season, he played mostly in the Czech U-20 Extraliga, posting better numbers than Radek Faksa, who was, however, drafted at a higher place at the 2012 NHL Draft. The same year, Hertl had his Czech Extraliga debut, not collecting any points, but at the age of sixteen, surely letting the hockey world notice his name.
A year after, in the 2011-12 hockey season, his career took an unexpected turn. From being a top player in the U-18 category and an above-average forward in U-20 category, to recording almost a point in every game, he became the top upcoming NHL Draft prospect from the Czech Extraliga, turning heads of not only North American scouts but a huge number of Czech hockey fans and journalists. After an amazing start to the campaign, he slowed down a little, eventually missing 14 regular season games, but still being the fourth best point-scorer of his team with 12 goals and 13 assists.
His amazing play at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Alberta made the scouts unsure of whether he or Faksa was the top draft prospect born in the Czech Republic. Back in December, 2011 and January, 2012, the Czech junior team surprised the hockey world with a great performance against the United States, and even later in the WJC playoffs, against Russia, losing after a long battle in overtime. There was no question of who was the brightest star of the team – Detroit Red Wings goalie prospect Petr Mrázek. The main question for some, however, was who was the better Czech draft prospect, Hertl or Faksa?
And the answer might as well have been Hertl when we take a look at the numbers – Hertl, with 5 points in 6 games and a positive +/-, Faksa with only 2 points in 6 games and a negative +/-. So, Hertl might have deserved to be drafted higher than his fellow countryman, who was taken by the Dallas Stars four picks before the San Jose Sharks chose Hertl. But, NHL drafting is not based on just one tournament performance.
This year, Hertl's still on fire, with his team lifted up by the additions of Roman Červenka and Vladimír Sobotka, who were both forced to look for another team to play for due to the NHL lockout. With 12 points in 20 games, Hertl isn't only ranked fourth among Slavia's point-getters, but also among the top 50 in the league point-scoring race. Last week, he passed another milestone in his career when he had his debut with the Czech national team in Liberec, Czech Republic, in a game that began this Euro Hockey Tour season.
Hockey's Future spoke with the 6-foot-2 winger after the game against Sweden.
Hockey's Future: How did you enjoy the previous season when you became a star after being a relatively unknown junior league player?
Tomáš Hertl: The season exceeded my expectations, I didn't think I would get to the Extraliga just like that. I got to the first team of Slavia Prague very quickly and then I had the opportunity to play at the U-20 WJC. That all spelled amazing progress of the season. I consider the NHL Entry Draft the pinnacle of the entire year, it was definitely the best moment of it.
HF: What is your experience from the Sharks Rookie Camp?
TH: I spent a week there and I loved to see all their facilities and the amazing organization. It was amazing to get to see how things work in the National Hockey League. I hope I can play there one day, my goal is to get there at some point of my career.
HF: So far, how do you evaluate this ongoing season?
TH: I think it's been good so far, Slavia is doing much better than last year. I managed to score a couple of goals, even though I could score even more. Now, I'm very happy to have the chance to play for the Czech national team, which is, so far, the highlight of my season.
HF: So today's debut must mean a lot to you, right?
TH: Definitely, it's the best thing I've accomplished so far in my career. It means more to me than the draft which I think is just the first step towards the NHL, but I still don't have any insurance that I will ever play there, while I've already played here (for the Czech national team).
HF: Tonight, you played on one line with Jakub Svoboda and Jan Kovář who are two of the finest Czech youngsters, as well. How did you three mesh on the ice?
TH: They are both amazing guys and they also show their qualities in the Extraliga. They're both leaders of their teams. Tonight, we created a couple of chances, but I think we will be even better in the next game as we'll try to work on our chemistry.
HF: What do you think you need to do to improve the most before you make the step into the NHL?
TH: I definitely need to get a little stronger, make my feet a little faster and mainly, I need to work on my finishing. I've been getting a lot of chances in the Extraliga, but I've been able to convert only a few into goals.
HF: What would happen next year if you were offered a chance to play for the Sharks or their AHL affiliation?
TH: It's still very early to say and I still try to watch how the situation in the NHL is evolving. Also, the NHL needs to sign a contract with the Czech Ice Hockey Association or otherwise they wouldn't let me go overseas. We'll see in a year, maybe I'll stay with Slavia, where I would get enough ice time to progress properly. This year, I'm a Slavia player and I want to focus on that.