It’s maddening to watch a team do the same thing and expect different results. It happened last night as the Vegas Golden Knights dealt the San Jose Sharks their worst home-opener loss in literally forever. The Sharks tried to do something, anything, against the swarming Knights. They made life difficult on themselves by not helping their defensemen out on breakouts amid constant forecheck-induced duress, by resorting to slapshots from the point when their offense was frustrated, and devolving into fisticuffs when they were frustrated.
The Sharks team last night looked like that which was beat early in last spring’s playoff quarterfinal series against these very Knights. Their goal is to somehow get back to the team that scored four power play goals against these same Knights in Game 7, beat Nathan MacKinnon and the upstart Avalanche, and bowed out nobly to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. But, while the Knights are very much the same team we saw in April, the Sharks are not.
That fact is worth keeping in mind as the season progresses. Last night, against a honed and hungry Vegas roster, San Jose iced six players who have yet to play a full 82-game NHL season. Those six players run the gamut of NHL potential. There’s probably-not-gonna-make-it Dylan Gambrell at one end and now, suddenly, Mario Ferraro at the other. Mario Ferraro was one of the Sharks best players last night, maybe even the best.
The Sharks were better at 5-on-5 with the 21-year-old lefty defender on the ice. The team outshot and outchanced the Knights moreso with him skating than they did with any other Shark. Now, Ferraro’s forward competition doesn’t seem exactly like All-Star caliber stuff at first blush. After Paul Stastny, Ferraro had to deal with the likes of William Carrier, Tomas Nosek and Valentin Zykov. Those three nearly nameless forwards, however, have all proven to be at least somewhat effective play-drivers in their careers to date. Far more so than most third- and fourth-line forwards in the league.
So when Ferraro is topping the leaderboards in multiple categories as he plays a formidable bottom-six forward contingent, that’s an exciting development. If Ferraro plays 40 or more NHL games this season, he’ll be ahead of his development schedule, according to research by Namita Nandakumar, hockey analyst by night and quantitative analyst for the Philadelphia Eagles by trade. Defenders picked in the second round of the NHL draft are most likely to need four or five seasons after their draft year hit the 40-game threshold, if they make it at all. This is Ferraro’s third post-draft season, and it looks like he’ll be difficult to pry away from the NHL ice.
The other, less experienced Sharks were all over the map tonight. Lukas Radil also helped his team take a higher proportion of shots and generate more expected goals than his teammates. Middleton was about team-average in both columns before he was injured, Gambrell was team-average, and Danil Yurtaykin and Lean Bergmann were a bit worse for the wear. Despite the mixed bag at even-strength, the Sharks newcomers deserve little of the blame.
Instead, we might turn our attention to the ultimate Veteran Presence line. Marcus Sorensen, Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson were far more effective at facewashing helmet-less Knights than they were are playing hockey. From the bottom of some automated stats table they emanate a wretched stink: At 5-on-5 the three were outshot by nine and out-expected-goaled into oblivion. The good news is that for the three minutes and 37 seconds Barclay Goodrow joined Thornton and Sorensen, the three managed to outshoot the Knights. The bad news is the third member of last night’s original third line will always be there when you wake up and check line rush tweets at morning skate.
But, cheer up! There is more good news, too. Before they were torn apart for no apparent reason, Tomas Hertl, Lukas Radil and Kevin Labanc were outplaying Las Vegas, and Logan Couture and Timo Meier held their own. The team’s top-six forwards, half of whom are most likely out of their element, mostly did what they needed to do. If that continues, the results against lesser opponents should at least look better.
This season is sure to be full of call-ups, bizarre demotions, teammate changes, language barriers, and the chaos of trying to play professional sports when a third of the starting lineup still doesn’t have a permanent stall in the dressing room. There will be lows, like tonight. Moments where you’d rather just pretend the hockey season hadn’t started yet. More importantly, there will be Willie Nelson-in-Denver highs, like Yurtaykin’s first NHL goal, Ferraro’s first end-to-end highlight and better games and more wins on the way, eventually.