Tomas Hertl's 4-Goal Game: First Step on Road to Superstardom?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 10, 2013

Oct 8, 2013; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl (48) celebrates after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers during the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Tomas Hertl wasn’t exactly an unknown before he scored four goals against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night. The San Jose Sharks’ first round pick in 2012 had built a strong resume in the Czech Republic before coming over to North America, and, with three points in his first two NHL games, seemed to be adapting just fine to the majors.

Still, he was a long way from being a household name among hockey fans outside of California. That changed when he lit up one of the league’s most-watched teams. But while Hertl’s fame took a big leap forward this week, does it change his long-term projection any?

Hertl became the youngest player to score four goals in a game since Jimmy Carson did it in 1988, and just one of 10 to do it under the age of 22 in the last quarter-century. What kind of company is he keeping with that accomplishment?

For many of these players, a four-goal game was a harbinger of a great career to come. Three of the nine players listed about (Sundin, Nieuwendyk and Roenick) would put up more than 1,000 points in their NHL careers; Pavel Bure likely would have as well if not for injuries. Those four rank among the all-time greats.

A couple of other players—Jimmy Carson and Stephane Richer—had strong starts to their careers but faded with relative rapidity, falling below the level of the best players on this list.

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 8:  Mark Parrish #37 of the New York Islanders pursues the play in a game during the first round of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 8, 2004 at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida.  The Lightn
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

There is also a pair of lesser lights. Mark Parrish played 722 games in the majors and had a few years as a competent depth scorer, but never evolved into a true game-breaking forward. Jaroslav Svejkovsky, who after Carson and Hertl is the youngest player to score four goals in a game in the last 25 years, didn’t even hit the 200-game mark in the majors. Some of that was related to his play; some of it was related to serious injuries that eventually ended his career in his mid-20’s.

Which category will Hertl ultimately fall into? A look at his career to date might be instructive, through the lens of NHL equivalency numbers. The idea behind equivalencies is to build a translation factor for other high-level leagues, based on how previous players’ scoring rates have changed when they moved from one to the other. What do those numbers say about Hertl’s offensive potential?

The translation used comes from Rob Vollman’s book Hockey Abstract, and is a 50/50 blend of historical performances (a larger pool of players, but older results) and post 2004-05 lockout numbers (more recent results, but a smaller group of players).

What do the numbers mean? Well, as a rule, they do a good job of projecting NHL performance, and these ones mark Hertl as a tier below the NHL’s really elite young players (for example, his numbers are well back of those posted by players like Nathan MacKinnon or Aleksander Barkov). However, they also place Hertl in territory inhabited by some very good prospects; there’s no shame in not being Nathan MacKinnon.

That fits with the book on Hertl. The Sharks invested a mid-first round pick on the player (which is almost exactly where his equivalency numbers slot him in the order of a typical draft). ESPN/Hockey Prospectus draft guru Corey Pronman’s scouting report is typical of many, highlighting Hertl’s on-ice intelligence and creativity with the puck but critiquing items like speed and strength.

Maybe this game marks a turning point, and Hertl will carve out an exceptional career that places him in the pantheon of NHL greats. On the other hand, maybe it was just a perfect moment for a good, but not great, young player. Either way, there is no shortage of hockey fans eager to see which direction he goes.