Sharks

Sharks prospects to watch: Mario Ferraro has future as NHL defenseman

marioferraroap.jpg
AP

Sharks prospects to watch: Mario Ferraro has future as NHL defenseman

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with defenseman Mario Ferraro. 

Colorado rookie phenom Cale Makar burst on the scene in the playoffs for the Avalanche last season, looking every bit like an NHL player at the ripe age of 20 years old. Makar scored a goal in his first career game, and then added four assists in the seven-game second-round series against the Sharks.

Before Makar arrived in Denver, he was playing at UMass-Amherst with San Jose defensive prospect Mario Ferraro. While Makar made the jump to the NHL first, he seemed to believe Ferraro would be able to do the same eventually.

"Hardest-working guy I've ever met and played with my entire life," Makar said of Ferraro to the Mercury News' Curtis Pashelka, shortly after the Sharks signed Ferraro to an entry-level contract in April.

Fast-forward a few months, and Ferraro is ever closer to joining Makar at the NHL level. He was very impressive in San Jose's recently completed prospect development camp, and -- given the offseason developments with the Sharks' roster -- he could arrive sooner rather than later.

Mario Ferraro

Draft year, position: 2017, second round (No. 49 overall)
Position: Defenseman
Shoots: Left
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 185 pounds
2018-19 team: UMass-Amherst (NCAA)

Skill set

Ferraro's best skill likely is his motor. He's the energizer bunny out on the ice.

"One of the most high-energy guys you've ever seen, he does not have a bad day," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. said of Ferraro during the development camp.

"Early in the scrimmage, I thought he kind of carried the play," said Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. "Kind of a hard guy to play against."

Ferraro is a smooth skater with near top-end speed. His shot is solid, but not spectacular. He's an adept passer, and has advanced hockey IQ for a player his age. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he isn't the biggest defensemen, but he doesn't shy away from physical play. 

Training-camp proving ground

As things currently stand, the Sharks' top-six group of defensemen appears to be set. On the right side, San Jose has former Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, as well as Tim Heed. On the left, the Sharks have Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brenden Dillon and Radim Simek. Jacob Middleton could be a factor, too.

That doesn't appear to leave much room at the moment for Ferraro, who shoots left. However, there's reason to believe things could change in the relatively near future.

Dillon -- who also shoots left -- is due to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and given the financial constraints San Jose is likely to face over the next several years, it's reasonable to assume the Sharks won't be able to re-sign him, given what he could command on the open market. Additionally, if the Sharks are going to make a trade for salary relief any time soon, Dillon seems like one of the obvious candidates to be included.

Ferraro is unlikely to unseat any of the current top-six in training camp, but if he can show the Sharks' brass that he is ahead of schedule and capable of competing at the NHL level, it could open up some options for San Jose moving forward.

Best-case scenario

Ferraro builds off the momentum he generated at the development camp and carries it through training camp, leaving the Sharks no decision but to push him straight from college to the NHL, just like his former UMass-Amherst teammate Makar.

Ferraro dazzles during training camp and claims one of the spots on the Sharks' third defensive pairing. With so much attention focused on the likes of Karlsson and Burns, Ferraro is permitted the time and space to properly learn on the job while being tutored by some of the best players at his position in the entire world.

While he doesn't garner any Calder Trophy votes, Ferraro gains valuable experience in a lengthy Sharks' playoff run and proves to be a logical and obvious eventual replacement for Vlasic.

Worst-case scenario

Ferraro's strong performance at the development camp goes to his head, and the motor that has been his calling card suddenly stalls.

He underwhelms at training camp, and gets dismissed early on, sent down to the AHL with the Barracuda. He remains there all season, and never recaptures the promise that had Sharks coaches so excited.

San Jose then is forced to go further into salary cap treachery, understanding they don't have a realistic internal option to fill Dillon's resulting void.

[RELATED: How Gambrell can earn full-time role with Sharks this year]

Realistic expectations

He's 20 years old!

Expecting Ferraro to go straight from the Frozen Four to the NHL is unfair, to say the least. That just doesn't happen very often, Makar being an obvious exception.

Ferraro continues along his current trajectory, impressing Sharks coaches in training camp, but not enough to expedite his promotion. He spends the majority of the season with the Barracuda, where he solidifies his status as the Sharks' top defensive prospect (Ryan Merkley will also have a say).

He makes his NHL debut as a temporary injury replacement late in the regular season, and enters the following season's training camp earmarked for a spot in San Jose's top-six. 

Main reasons for Sharks' struggles in atypically disappointing season

sharkswrongusatsi.jpg
USATSI

Main reasons for Sharks' struggles in atypically disappointing season

To say the Sharks' season thus far has been a major disappointment would be the understatement of 2020. San Jose is in the midst of its worst season in more than 15 years, and it has been a bumpy ride from the start.

The four consecutive losses to begin the season weren't the final nail in former head coach Peter DeBoer's coffin, but they did set his eventual dismissal in motion. A dismal October was counteracted by an impressive November, but a lengthy losing streak to begin December prompted Sharks general manager Doug Wilson to make a change behind the bench.

San Jose had been performing better under interim head coach Bob Boughner since the switch, but three blowout losses heading into the All-Star break have dried up any momentum the team had generated. The Sharks sit 11 points back of playoff positioning with 32 games left to play and several teams ahead of them to leapfrog. Here are the main three reasons San Jose finds itself in such unusually bad shape:

Goaltending 

The most obvious sign that a team's season has taken a wrong turn is a coaching change. The second-most obvious? A goalie switch.

Martin Jones entered the season as the Sharks' No. 1 goalie by default. His playoff experience, combined with his hefty and immovable contract, gave him the leg up on backup netminder Aaron Dell. But not all of that postseason experience has been impressive, and Jones didn't do anything to answer the question marks he entered the current season with. He lost nine of his first 11 starts, and the Sharks have only won one of his last 10. Over those two separate cold streaks, he failed to post a save percentage of .900 or better in 16 of the 21 games.

Other than stopping pucks, consistency is arguably the most important quality in a goaltender, and Jones simply wasn't providing that, nor has he for quite a while. Dell, on the other hand, has been a breath of fresh air since taking over the No. 1 spot, stealing Jones' job and running with it. While Dell's numbers aren't overly impressive since becoming the starter, they're better than Jones', and it's likely Dell's steady presence in net that has given Boughner the confidence to stick with him.

Despite the improved goaltending since the coaching change, the Sharks still rank near the bottom of the league in all of the important metrics. San Jose's cumulative save percentage (.891) ranks third-worst in the NHL, while the team's cumulative goals-against average (3.10) is tied for sixth-worst. And that's not the worst of it. The Sharks' goalies have actually performed substantially better when the team has been shorthanded than they have at even strength.

There are no obvious ways for the Sharks to improve their goaltending situation moving forward, so what you see is likely what you're going to get. If San Jose is going to make a second-half comeback, both Dell and Jones will have to be considerably better than we've seen thus far.

Power play

The Sharks are averaging nearly one fewer goal per game than a season ago, and when you combine that with some substandard goaltending, disaster ensues. Just ask DeBoer.

Some of that offensive drop-off was expected, but San Jose's fall from a power-play juggernaut to its current middling state certainly was not, at least not to this extent. Last season, the Sharks scored at the sixth-highest clip in the league with the man-advantage, scoring on 23.7 percent of their power-play opportunities. This season, that scoring rate has plummeted to 16.7 percent, seventh-worst in the NHL. And that's only half the problem.

Through the first 50 games, San Jose has had only 138 power-play opportunities (2.76 per game), the sixth-fewest in the league. Last season, the Sharks went on the power play 241 times, or 2.94 opportunities per game.

So, not only are the Sharks going on the power play less often, but they're also not being very effective with the opportunities they do get. For a team that has been shorthanded 163 times already (fourth-most in the NHL), that's just asking for trouble.

[RELATED: Sharks mailbag: Is Wilson's job as GM in serious jeopardy?]

Emergence of younger players

When Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi departed in free agency over the offseason, the Sharks lost 58 goals -- or roughly one-fifth of their 2018-19 season total. It wasn't going to be easy to replace that kind of production, and with little in the way of offseason signings in the forward group, San Jose inevitably was going to be reliant on several of its younger players taking the next step in their development to help fill the void.

Well, that hasn't really happened.

Tomas Hertl, an injury-replacement All-Star, is on pace to score 25 goals after notching 35 a year ago. Timo Meier appeared to make the leap last season when he tallied 30 goals and 66 points, but he has failed to expand upon that promise in the current campaign. Barclay Goodrow might already have set a career-high with eight goals scored and Kevin Labanc is on pace to do the same, but even that improvement hasn't been as considerable as necessary. Furthermore, none of the prospects the team had hoped would explode on the scene actually have, whether it be Antti Suomela, Sasha Chmelevski or Dylan Gambrell. 21-year-old defenseman Mario Ferraro has been the one major bright spot, which should tell you everything you need to know about the current state of the Sharks.

San Jose entered the season as one of the oldest teams in the league and knew it would need some of its younger players to step up. They haven't, and while that already has negatively impacted the franchise's present, it could continue to moving forward if some players don't emerge.

Why polled NHL players want to drink beers with Sharks' Joe Thornton

thorntonburnsusatsi.jpg
USATSI

Why polled NHL players want to drink beers with Sharks' Joe Thornton

If you ever wanted to buy Joe Thornton or Brent Burns a beer, you'd better hope none of their NHL colleagues are around. 

In The Athletic's annual player poll, 12 percent of 392 NHL players who participated said Joe Thornton is the player they'd most want to drink a beer with, just behind Alex Ovechkin (14 percent) and Sidney Crosby (12 percent). Defenseman Brent Burns, with 5 percent of the vote, finished fifth, while fellow Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson also received votes. 

Why Thornton? 

"He's a legend," a Pacific Division player told The Athletic.

Only Sharks teammate Patrick Marleau has played more NHL games (1,703) than Thornton (1,616), and Thornton, Marleau and Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara are the only remaining NHLers who debuted in the 20th century. The Athletic found that the average NHL player entering this season was around 27 years old, meaning the average player was about five years old when Thornton debuted in 1997. 

In this case, a good chunk of the league does want to meet one of their heroes, but Thornton's personality can't hurt, either. After all, he once signed a contract extension on a lawnmower, plays Risk in his downtime and famously posed in the buff alongside Burns for ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" in 2017.  

“He’d have good stories and he seems like a fun guy," an Atlantic Division player told The Athletic. 

[RELATED: Is Wilson's GM job in serious jeopardy? Brodie answers in latest Sharks mailbag]

Thornton, 40, has 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 60 games during his 22nd NHL season. 

If he returns for a 23rd, it's easy to imagine him and Burns on this list again next year.