SAN JOSE -- At this time last year, Mario Ferraro was surrounded by similar-aged players while starring at the University of Massachusetts. But for the last five months, he has been the Sharks' youngest player, nearly half the age of his eldest teammate.

From the way the defenseman has performed in his first NHL season, you would think Ferraro was a five-year veteran. But frequently, as it was after he scored San Jose's first goal in a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, his youthful energy is on display and infects all those around him.

The Sharks were dead in the water after the first period, trailing 2-0 with nothing good to point to. Ferraro changed that in a hurry in the second, as he scored just over two minutes into the frame, and proceeded to use that to fire up the rest of his teammates. Both the skill involved in scoring the goal, and the leadership shown afterward are qualities rarely found in a 21-year-old rookie.

"I try to be a leader wherever I go, no matter how old," Ferraro said after the much-needed win. "I think that everyone in this room is a leader in their own way. They bring something different to the game and to the rink every day. So, that's always something you try to do is try to lead by example. But, of course, I've got a lot of great people to follow in their footsteps around here. I'm trying to improve on my leadership and I only do that by learning from the great leaders that we have on this team already."


Of the elders whose footsteps Ferraro hopes to follow, there arguably isn't a better model than Marc-Edouard Vlasic. And, in fact, that process has already begun. Like Vlasic, Ferraro skipped the minors altogether and was immediately thrown into the fire at the NHL level after being drafted as a second-round pick. Vlasic is now in his 14th season, but this time, the shoe on the other foot. Now, he's the elder statesmen paired up with the standout rookie.

"It's been a lot of fun," Vlasic said of playing alongside Ferraro, as they did against the Devils. "He's very energetic, plays hard. He skates. He can move the puck really well."

There aren't many players who can speak to Ferraro's experience this season, but Vlasic is one of them. He's very impressed with his rookie counterpart, and appreciates the fact that the opportunities he has received have been earned and not simply given.

"It's tough, but he's doing a great job," Vlasic said of Ferraro's challenge of entering the league at such a young age. "He's playing against great players, he's playing hard like I said, and he's getting rewarded. He's playing a lot, but he's playing well, so that's why he's playing a lot."

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Ferraro totaled 30 shifts and 23:54 of ice time in the win over the Devils, both of which are career-highs. His minutes have significantly increased as of late, though, and that's not by accident. Injuries and the trade deadline have created opportunities for younger players to take on larger roles, and through his play, Ferraro has done nothing but prove he deserves one.

"He always seems to be fired up and ready to go, and it's contagious," Sharks interim coach Bob Bougher described Ferraro. "I think he's a well-liked guy in the room, and for a rookie, he's not a quiet kid. He's not afraid to get in the middle of it off the ice, as well as on the ice. He has had a great season. You can see the maturity in his game, from the beginning of the season until now. He's playing in major situations, and his development has been great all year."

Not much has gone right for San Jose this season. At almost every opportunity where something could go wrong, it has. But Ferraro's growth and development is one of the few major exceptions. He has surpassed even the wildest of expectations, and as good as he has looked as a rookie, he is well on his way to becoming a franchise cornerstone on the back end.

He has been the bright spot of the Sharks' season. And the best surely is yet to come.