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An interview with the UMass Director of Hockey Ops

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Mario Ferraro and John Leonard have skills that may help them reach their projected upsides.

John Leonard of the Massachusetts Minutemen celebrates his goal with Mario Ferraro during the semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Frozen Four at KeyBank Center on April 11, 2019 in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

For all the advancements we’ve seen in the field of National Hockey League (NHL) analytics, we’ve witnessed relatively few developments in the world of prospect evaluation. The two major reasons are, first, that the statistics available vary from league to league. Numbers that have become commonplace at the highest professional level, such as 5-on-5 shot attempts, aren’t available for American Hockey League (AHL) games. Second, the video of these leagues’ games isn’t always clear or accessible on demand, if it exists at all, making tracking data difficult to produce.

In the spreadsheets that amateur draftniks meticulously develop are empty cells for lower-level European league information, because those leagues don’t separate even-strength from full-strength point scoring. Still, thanks to the folks who do take the time to scrape websites of dozens of leagues, we have far more robust statistical prospect profiles than we did even just a few years ago.

To supplement statistical characterizations of players, we turn to scouting reports and video, when possible. When a player’s production spikes or dips, video and in-person scouting reports can theoretically help us understand why. The American collegiate (NCAA) level represents one such league for which off-ice knowledge can help us better understand changes in on-ice production.

The San Jose Sharks do not have many prospects grinding away in the college ranks. In fact, the team signed its most promising student-athlete, defenseman Mario Ferraro to an entry-level contract (ELC) earlier this year. Due to the Sharks' defensive depth, he’s expected to play for the San Jose Barracuda this season, though it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he skated at the NHL level once or twice.

At the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Ferraro leaves behind John Leonard, a 21-year-old winger the Sharks made an overage draft pick in 2018.

Ryan Mahan, the University’s director of hockey analytics joined us for a brief phone interview to discuss the two players.

A left-handed defenseman with a late birthday, Ferraro scored a respectable 41 points in 61 United States Hockey League (USHL) games during his draft year. He followed up that performance by scoring 23 points in 39 games his freshman season with UMass. That point-per-game clip fits neatly between former teammate and budding star Cale Makar and expected-NHLer Dante Fabbro’s freshman year marks.

2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championships Mario Ferraro San Jose Sharsk
Ferraro may not light up the scoreboard at the next level, but his strength is his defensive awareness
Photo by Bill Wippert/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

After that promising start, Ferraro’s per-game scoring dropped to 0.34 points/game from 0.59 the season before. According to Emmanuel Perry’s prospect model, that production drop represented a change to -0.29 projected wins above replacement (WAR) per 82 NHL games from -0.11 WAR.

Mahan points out that, despite Ferraro’s production dip, the defender “was an absolute force” for the Minutemen, an “energizer bunny” who applied “constant pressure” during even-strength play but especially on the penalty kill (PK).

The PK was a portion of the game for which Mahan and his team tracked statistics. Though he can’t divulge the exact figures he tracked, Mahan was quick to reveal that “Ferraro was a top defensemen in the [PK statistics],” in part because of his “biggest strength is closing down [the time and space opposing players want], being physical and frustrating.”

We hear the “hard to play against” moniker far too often when coaches or talking heads discuss players without much skill. At first blush this type of description might make one balk at the idea of Ferraro progressing, but in this case, the description refers to the fact Ferraro is “strong, knows where he’s supposed to be, and seemingly never gets tired.”

In professional soccer there exists an anecdote about a manager who thought a sign of good defenders were the abilities to break up passes often, stole the ball from opposing forwards constantly, and seemed to be everywhere the ball was. The trouble with that hypothesis: Defenders who were always in the right position were rarely in a place to make a play on the ball because opposing players avoided them altogether.

In hockey, much like in soccer, so much of what a defender does well happens when he’s not on screen during a broadcast. In Ferraro, it seems the Sharks have drafted a player who may not be all over the score sheet or within the camera’s range because he’s doing things well on the defensive side of the puck.

John Leonard, a shifty winger taken in the sixth round in 2018, will return to UMass for his junior year. A year ago, Leonard scored 0.85 points per game. Last season, he topped that figure, finishing his sophomore year with 40 points in 40 games.

2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Championships John Leonard San Jose Sharks
NCAA champion John Leonard has demonstrated his ability to put up points
Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Of Leonard, Mahan says, “everyone can wrap their heads around” the fact he has “incredible offensive talent.” Where he made strides last season was, like his counterpart at the other end of the ice, in becoming harder to play against. “Some skilled players don’t want to battle in the corners,” Mahan continued. He noted that Leonard worked on that aspect of his game last year, coming out the other end of the season making a more positive impact on the game as a result.

Though Leonard technically played on the second line, the team’s top-two forward groups were essentially interchangeable. Leonard was also part of the team’s top power play unit, a group that led the nation in power play conversion rate.

This season, Leonard will focus on owning a leadership role and setting an example for the two recruiting classes under him, according to Mahan.

It seems NHL development coaches make regular visits to NCAA prospects, even giving suggestions to college coaching staffs. It’s likely that this season’s visits will aim to round out Leonard’s skillset to ready him for the next level.

San Jose has until August 15, 2021, to sign Leonard to a contract before losing his rights, per CapFriendly. Should the winger sign an ELC next spring, that should be considered a positive development for his chances of making the NHL roster.

It’s clear that both players are more than the sum of their goals and assists. The Sharks have already let the public know they saw Ferraro’s sophomore season as a positive step by inking him to a contract. The organization seems to share Mahan’s view that the best part of the young defender’s game may exist in the space between him and the puck rather than in the dazzling assists and slapshot bombs we are used to associating with prospect progression.

Leonard has a longer shot at NHL glory, but if he exhibits the leadership UMass expects of him and takes his next step forward, he should join his former teammate in San Jose before long.

Neither player projects to be more than a depth player if they make the NHL at all. But, a glimpse at what they have provided their college team suggests both players have the tools that point- and age-based projections can’t quantify.