There is perhaps no bigger contract left for the San Jose Sharks to sign this off-season than pending restricted free agent Mario Ferraro. In torrid fashion, he has already established himself as a fan-favorite and a leader in the locker room. This was all accomplished in just three NHL seasons, and only 180 games played. It is impressive enough for a young defenseman to earn a secure position in the league at this pace, but it is even more so considering the blueliner’s vital role on a roster featuring Norris Trophy winners Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. For the 23-year-old from King City, Ontario, this is just the beginning of what promises to be a lengthy professional career.
What is it about Mario that makes him so beloved by fans and teammates alike? Perhaps it’s his social media presence. His YouTube channel, Youngest of Plugs, has over 4,000 subscribers.
Maybe it’s simply the way he plays the game. He has an earnest effort. It’s so easy to see, even as a casual viewer. More importantly, the bounce in his step is what takes him to the next level. For a sport that often discourages its athletes from being expressive, San Jose fans have been blessed to enjoy the exuberant character of players like Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Tomas Hertl in recent memory.
In his own way, Ferraro provides the bounce that fights against the standard of unforgiving conformity in hockey culture. He is unapologetically himself, and not in the problematic way that, for example, Carolina’s Tony DeAngelo is known to be. It’s refreshing to see the way he conducts himself in interviews, in the brief moments we can hear of him from the bench or in the locker room, and on the ice. Beyond that, his own journey to the NHL is interesting as well.
After playing AAA in the youth hockey league of Greater Toronto, Ferraro made the jump to the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) as a 16-year-old. In two seasons with the Toronto Patriots, he put up 52 points in 94 games. Although the OJHL is in a tier below the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), it has countless alumni in the NHL. The Sharks’ own alum list includes Burns, Barclay Goodrow and Andrew Cogliano (a new Stanley Cup Champion!).
In his draft year, Ferraro moved south to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) for the Des Moines Buccaneers, maintaining his amateur status. In his sole USHL season, Ferraro scored 41 points in 60 games, finishing second in the league among defensemen.
Then San Jose selected him 49th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Remarkably, Ferraro has already played in more NHL games than any player selected outside of the first round, a testament to the durability and fidelity of his game.
Following the draft, Ferraro hit the books and played collegiate hockey with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In the 2017-18 season, he, current Sharks teammate John Leonard, and Cale Makar all finished in the top-five in points for the Minutemen. Ferraro was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team.
The 2018-19 season was even more eventful, and the beginning one of the most pivotal points of his young career. It began with a reward for his leadership, as he was named an alternate captain for his club. While his offensive prowess slipped a little that season, Amherst had a phenomenal year. For the first time in their history, UMass was ranked No. 1 nationally and won its first ever Hockey East regular season title. Only a few months later, the Sharks signed Ferraro to an entry-level deal.
He set the tone early in San Jose. At the time, head coach Peter DeBoer was immediately impressed with his energetic poise. Ferraro made the opening night roster for the 2019-20 season and played his first NHL game on October 2, 2019 against the Vegas Golden Knights.
That season may be remembered as the one where the Sharks fell from their long-held status as a perennial contender, but it was also the year that some current young up-and-comers — Ferraro, Noah Gregor and Nikolai Knyzhov — got started. In his rookie year, Ferraro played 61 games and finished with 11 points. The following season saw division-only play, and Ferraro appeared in every game. That year, his time on ice per game increased significantly from 15:53 in the previous year to 22:25.
This past season Ferraro continued to see an increased role in responsibilities. This was despite an injury-riddled year that included a broken lower left fibula. His ice time went up slightly to 23 minutes a game, which was third on the team. The Sharks even named him an alternate captain, a major achievement for somebody so young in a locker room full of established NHL leaders. Even though he hasn’t been able to produce top-tier offense from the blue line, he has solidified a top-4 role on the team for the next several years.
There are so many questions surrounding the Sharks organization this summer, and they could all directly impact Ferraro’s future. Will the next general manager offer the defenseman a bridge deal? With Boughner ousted, will the next head coach trust Ferraro to the same extent? If Knyzhov returns and is stellar, or Vlasic’s contract is bought out, how would Ferraro’s ice time be impacted?
What We Like
What propelled him to No. 1 on our list? It isn’t just the energy and valiant hustle in every shift. It’s his charismatic leadership. The real value in the upside of a player like Ferraro is the cultural impact he can develop and maintain in an organization. He has already proven more than his worth on the ice over the past three seasons.
Areas of Improvement
At his locker room clean-out interview in May, Ferraro himself stated he would like to improve his offensive game. He’s a sprinter on the ice, which requires a different set of hands from a player like Ryan Merkley, who can take a couple of strides and take his time to look for options. Ferraro’s speed can be an advantage on the blue line. He has the ability to put himself in a good position ahead of anyone else, which gives him the opportunity to drive the play one step ahead of the defense. We will look to see how he improves on this aspect of his game next year.
Injuries are often tossed aside as excuses because they are simply part of the game. They shouldn’t be. The season’s biggest challenges for Ferraro were the injuries. It takes time to heal, but recovering to 100 percent can often take even longer. For a young player like Ferraro, injuries are a stalwart to developing their game further. It’s an entire battle just to get back to peak form as it was prior to the injury. Hopefully for Ferraro and the Sharks, he can have a full season to continue making strides.
This play starts with Nick Merkley and Jasper Weatherby chipping the puck into Buffalo’s zone, holding on to it while their teammates change. Weatherby’s reach and strength play a crucial role in maintaining possession behind the net, just long enough for the other Sharks skaters to catch up to the play.
Ferraro, fresh off the bench, hustles to get to a dangerous area in the offensive zone while it’s open. Buffalo’s defensive strategy to collapse in the zone helped them prevent the intended centering pass, but Merkley gets a bit of a lucky bounce that gives him possession of the puck once again.
At this point, it’s too late for the Sabres to try to block a pass or shot, as they are too far from the point. Merkley quickly hands it off to Ferraro, who is wide open for a one-timer, and Ferraro makes no mistake with an unforgiving laser of a shot that gives the Sharks an important two-goal lead in the third period.