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Sharks mailbag, part 2: Mario Ferraro’s contract, Patrick Marleau’s Hall of Fame case

Nearly all of the major players in the new-look Sharks regime are now in place.

General manager Mike Grier announced five additions to the front-office staff earlier this week, and the Sharks announced a four-year contract for defenseman Mario Ferraro on Thursday. The new members of the hockey operations department are:

– Scott Fitzgerald, director of player personnel

– Tom Holy, assistant GM

– Todd Marchant, director of player development/senior advisor

– Chris Morehouse, director of amateur scouting

– Ryan Stewart, pro personnel/senior advisor

Holy is transitioning from a distinguished run in communications/media relations, and is back with the organization from the Stars. He’s going to head up the analytics department, and work on staff budgeting and contracts as well. He’ll team up with current AGM Joe Will on some of those duties.

Tim Burke’s title is changing from assistant GM to senior advisor and pro scout, but his new boss said his duties aren’t. Grier noted Burke’s work with young players during development camp last month, and said he could be involved with that moving forward as well.

Fitzgerald, whose brother Tom is GM of the Devils, is going to focus on both pro and amateur scouting, particularly players the Sharks like in the top two rounds of a draft class and potential college free agents. Grier said he wants an emphasis on getting picks right early in the draft, so Fitzgerald will be another evaluator to work alongside Morehouse and his scouting staff on the top prospects. Grier also made it clear that Morehouse, who has worked for the Blue Jackets and Rangers in various scouting capacities, will run the draft process for the Sharks.

Marchant is going to oversee the club’s expanded player development department. Stewart will oversee the club’s professional staff working in North America and Europe.

Grier said the to-hire list is getting shorter. He and Holy will work together to likely add to the analytics department once his new AGM is settled in. The Sharks have three scouts to replace from the previous group, and they still have to fill out David Quinn’s coaching staff. The GM said that could happen in the next week or so, but would not confirm that Calder Cup-winning coach Ryan Warsofsky is going to be on Quinn’s staff.

San Jose’s front office is definitely a more robust group, after years of Doug Wilson Sr. keeping a pretty minimal inner circle. Grier has mentioned a focus on drafting and developing players in basically every interview he’s done since taking the job. It sure seems like he believes that will be the best way out of the club’s current malaise of three straight years without a playoff berth and potentially at least that many with roster-building restrictions because of the salary cap and one of the least-efficient collections of contracts in the NHL.

Meanwhile, a source confirmed Ferraro’s new contract is for $3.25 million per season. He was a restricted free agent, but without arbitration rights there wasn’t the same deadline, or the pressure that comes with it, as other RFAs. We’re going to talk more about Ferraro shortly.

This is part two of a mega-mailbag. As one reader noted, it would likely take three or four editions to answer all of the questions everyone has right now. It is a period that feels like it could be both intriguing and also very uncertain for Sharks fans.

Let’s dig in.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

Interested to get your opinion on Ferraro. He’s the kind of player that fans tend to overrate and analytics folks tend to underrate. Guessing his real value is somewhere in between? — M.L.

This question from M.L. has been hanging out in a file I call “future mailbag questions/potential stories” for a while now. It was an interesting idea that I wanted to pick at in a story at some point over the summer or during training camp.

Here is the Ferraro case file, from the two different perspectives.

Option A (the fans)

Ferraro is the best U24 defenseman the Sharks have drafted and developed since … Marc Edouard-Vlasic? The only other U24 defenseman to play at least 900 minutes in a season for the Sharks since MEV and Jason Demers did in 2010-11 is Nikolai Knyzhov during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season. Ferraro has done it each of the past three years.

He’s beloved by his teammates and coaches. He’s one of the most personable players on the team and clearly designated as the best leader among the younger players/a potential future captain. He’s a defensive defenseman who soaks up tough minutes and looks like he is good at playing defense.

Option B (the nerds)

Those two tweets run through most of the concerns that analytically-inclined folks have about Ferraro.

To Ferraro’s credit, he said Thursday that he wants to have more impact on offense, and wants to show more poise with the puck. Vlasic didn’t put up a lot of points in his prime, but he was almost an ideal modern defenseman — strong against the rush and in his own zone, with the ability to help transition the puck in the other direction.

One thing that I observed/had as a working theory after half a season on the beat was that while Ferraro and Brent Burns were very close, I’m not sure they worked together on the ice like they felt they did. The results, particularly the advanced metrics, suggested they were actually a so-so fit. I’m not sure he’s a great fit next to Erik Karlsson, either.

So what does that mean for Ferraro? He’s clearly the second-best defenseman on this team now, or certainly the one with the second-highest expectations. I think he’d benefit from not playing with Karlsson or Burns, and letting him try to find his way as the lead guy on a second pairing. That’s probably only possible if Knyzhov can return to his pre-injury form and slot next to Karlsson again.

More than the offense, Ferraro and whoever his partner is need to defend zone entries better. The whole game now for defensemen is basically defending the rush and defending against clean zone entries. Burns and Ferraro yielded the blue line too easily too often last season. Was that their doing, or the coaching staff’s? We might find out more on that topic this coming season.

I’m still intrigued by the perception versus on-ice value situation with Ferraro, and will likely continue to be. He’s young enough to improve, but it needs to happen in the next year or two.

To M.L.’s point, I’m pretty sure if you offered Sharks fans another young-ish defensive defenseman who had 14 points and played 10 total minutes fewer than Ferraro last year, I’d bet the majority of them would say no before even revealing who the other player is. The guy I’m thinking of also signed for a similar rate this offseason, but on a longer deal.

That’s the type of player Ferraro could be, a top-four defenseman who has enough impact to be considered more of a No. 3 than a No. 4. He hasn’t played at that level yet, despite the amount of ice time and responsibility the Sharks have given him.

Who are the Sharks realistically expecting to provide secondary goal scoring this season? We know the top line will produce, but outside of Logan Couture, the bottom eight are an interchangeable mish-mash of depth forwards, fourth-liners and grinders. And since the roster is clogged with veterans on guaranteed deals, it doesn’t appear there is room for any prospects to step up and fill the void. I’m concerned. — Jeffrey C. 

Jeffrey is probably not alone with this concern. And scoring goals, particularly from players who aren’t Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Couture, does appear to still be a potential stumbling block for the Sharks in 2022-23.

Luke Kunin scored at a 20 goals per 82 games pace in each of the previous two seasons before dipping to 13 last year. He’s 24 years old, so if he scored 20-plus goals while playing primarily on the second line this season, that wouldn’t be considered an outlier.

Oskar Lindblom scored 17 and then had 11 in 30 games before his cancer diagnosis. He’s played about 1.5 seasons since returning from the treatments, and that level of production hasn’t returned. But it could.

Could a healthy Kevin Labanc score 15 to 20 goals? What about Noah Gregor, with even just a slight uptick in either good fortune, finishing improvement, or both? If he gets both, I’d call it a good investment to wager on him getting to 17 or even 20. I don’t think any of the four players I just mentioned are going to be first-line guys on a title contender, but potentially having more competent middle-six guys would be an improvement.

Maybe guys like William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Scott Reedy and Brandon Coe don’t get to play 60 to 80 NHL games this season, but the Sharks have four depth wings where there could be some level of expectation for them to score 15-plus goals. That might not seem that exciting, but the Sharks had four guys reach 16 goals last year, and it took a late-season surge by Nick Bonino to make it more than three.

If the Sharks have seven or eight players who reach 15 goals, and something like four or five who get to 20, they will have a better, deeper offense. That might not be enough to make them a playoff team or a contender, but it could be a big improvement from a year ago.

How does Meier’s future fit into the new GM’s plans? Does he look to trade or sign him long term? — Michael R.

Meier is eligible to sign a new contract now. Grier intimated that if any of the veteran guys wanted to go elsewhere, he’d oblige like he did with Burns. Meier might not be a veteran yet, depending on the definition, and the Sharks still control his rights for at least two more seasons.

If he wants to stay in San Jose, Grier’s first priority will be to get him signed. If Meier has a similar year to last season, he’s going to command a huge number on his next contract. But it is worth noting that Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, two elite wings, did not sign eight-figure contracts this offseason, so thinking Meier could get $10 million-plus per season might be a long shot right now, at least. An improved outlook about the future of the salary cap ceiling in the next 12 months or so might work in Meier’s favor.

If Meier’s agent and the Sharks don’t make much progress on a new contract, Grier could be tempted to trade him at some point this season. That would undoubtedly lengthen the timeline for when San Jose might be a good team again, but not getting a long-term deal done means Meier could force his way into a one-year contract for 2023-24 and then become an unrestricted free agent after that. The return for a Meier trade would likely get worse if the two sides reach that point.

I was surprised by the Quinn hire as I was hoping the Sharks would hire a head coach with a strong developmental experience. Did I miss a head coaching post with a must be “friend or family” requirement? — Carlos M.

I’m not trying to single out Carlos here, and I’m also not going to suggest that the Sharks made a slam-dunk, fantastic hire. But suggesting that Quinn doesn’t have strong developmental experience because … a couple of kids with the Rangers (and their fans) complained about their playing time … is not really telling the full story.

Quinn spent two seasons coaching at the U.S. National Team Development Program, in its early stages. He was an associate coach at Boston University, the head guy there and an AHL coach for three years in between. He spent his whole career up until the Rangers job developing players. Quinn has coached Kevin Shattenkirk, Charlie McAvoy, Dante Fabbro and plenty of other future NHL players.

His usage and tough love for some of the Rangers’ young players has been documented, and his new boss was pretty clear about his thoughts on those thoughts the day he hired Quinn. The Rangers had a few young defensemen who definitely improved/established themselves at the NHL level while Quinn was their head coach.

The two forwards who come up most in this discourse, Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko, produced at almost the same per-82 games rate with the new coach as they did for Quinn. I think the attention their line got in the playoffs has indirectly given Quinn’s critics more fuel, but also now that we’re not in that moment … Kakko had five points in 19 playoff games and was healthy scratched in the last game.

How much impact a head coach has on a 21-year-old’s overall development is also often either way overstated or completely dismissed, depending on what narrative someone wants to push. And the actual impact is almost always somewhere in the middle, while the small army of behind-the-scenes personnel goes largely unnoticed, either positively or negatively.

Are they a better team now than when they ended last year? I guess the only thing that matters is will they have more points? — Ira S.

I saw this question and was actually going to reach out to Dom Luszczyszyn, but he offered up what I was looking for in (digital) print on Thursday morning. Dom’s model says the Sharks are 2.1 wins worse after their offseason moves, so somewhere like four-to-five points worse. Now, there is plenty of variance involved in that projection, and Dom’s season preview coming soon will have more context and probabilities.

Losing Burns is the big one. I think the Sharks are going to be marginally better up front, even if it’s with older players who don’t move the needle the way flashes from William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau might. If they roll with the three goalies, or James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen, I think there’s room for a tiny bit of improvement in the club’s overall output in net, but not a ton. While the Sharks gave a lot of rookies opportunities last year, it’s entirely possible that just replacing a lot of those minutes with capable NHL veterans will move the San Jose point total in a positive direction.

The one issue remains Burns, and how the Sharks replace him. There were areas of his game that analytical metrics did not like, but overall he was still a net positive player. How good can Knyzhov be? He might be the most important player on the team, if the goal really is to push upwards in the standings. Improvement from Ferraro, good health from Markus Nutivaara (and obviously Karlsson) and Ryan Merkley elbowing his way into a regular role despite a lot of bodies at the position are all other reasons the Sharks could mitigate the loss of Burns on defense.

If they do that, potential gains on the margins at the other positions could be a big deal. If they don’t cover the loss of Burns well, they could be in seller mode/lottery land by January.

Can you address the front offices missteps as it pertains to setting player expectations and communication? Examples:

1. Evander Kane being told that he was doing a great job and being a positive on-ice example for younger Sharks players.

2. Radim Simek saying straight out he was lied to by management as it pertains to his role on the Sharks.

This speaks to a broken culture in the Sharks from top to bottom. Have they addressed this at all? Is this why Doug Wilson and Bob Boughner are gone? If so what about Will? — Vanya C.

So, at any point in a season, there is somewhere between 640 and 736 active players in the NHL, plus all of the guys on injured reserve. There are also almost certainly more than 64 disgruntled players at any given point. Which is to say that two disgruntled players … is not a clear indicator of an overall organizational problem.

I’m not dismissing Vanya’s concerns about the Sharks’ culture. If I were a Sharks fans who read Grier’s comments since he took over, I’d probably be wondering what the culture was really like with the previous regime.

That said, I do not think the two situations above clearly show the Sharks are/were broken.

Is it possible that what Kane said after he was cut about his exit interview in 2021 is true? Sure. Is there anyone in the NHL who has done the opposite of “earned the benefit of the doubt” than Kane, though? I haven’t seen anyone on the San Jose corroborate what Kane said. I have had multiple people, inside the organization and out, confirm to me what Kevin Kurz reported about certain veterans in the dressing room being fed up with Kane after the 2020-21 season.

And this mess with Kane’s contract now is because he was suspended for 21 games for a COVID-19 protocol violation, and the Sharks cut him because they allege he violated protocol again while with the Barracuda and also went AWOL, or didn’t return to the club at the time originally agreed upon, to put it more mildly. Kane disputes those allegations, and the grievance about the contract termination is ongoing.

Simek’s comments to media in his home country after the 2021-22 season were interesting. No one from the Sharks has publicly refuted them. But I go back to the disgruntled players thing. Having a couple players who aren’t happy with management, or dispute the communication that’s happened between club and player, is not a straight line to “the culture is broken.”

The two complaints here aren’t related and are from players on opposite end of the roster spectrum. One more thing … it’s never a good look for any team to have a player like Simek speaking out publicly about perceived communication issues. But it is worth noting that if any NHL team might have a communication slip-up, one that has its long-time general manager on medical leave (and not having a lot of day-to-day contact with the hockey ops department) … sort of fits the bill for something like that to happen, no?

Wilson and Boughner are definitely not gone because of a cultural breakdown. Wilson left on his own accord, and the Sharks were surprised that he did. Boughner’s superiors praised him for the improvement the club made in the culture department (once Kane was removed from the locker room) at the end of this past season.

I don’t think they would have completely turned around on that after their in-house review and said, “Oh wait, actually this is a problem.” I think Boughner’s removal, while also not a great look for the club from the outside, was more about wanting a fresh start (and Grier hiring his own guy, anyway) than anything else. Making Grier fire the coaching staff in his first couple days, when it was so close to the draft and free agency, also didn’t make sense.

Could Grier have pushed to keep the coaching staff during his interview process, especially if it gave him a way to deflect some of the blame for a potentially rough first season? That’s a discussion for a different day/topic.

OK, there have been some spicy topics in this mailbag. Let’s wrap this up with a softb … oh boy.

Do you think the inductions of Daniel Alfredsson and the Sedins move Marleau from Hall of Fame bubble to first ballot? — Joseph R.

A couple of my colleagues discussed Marleau’s candidacy for the Hockey Hall of Fame earlier this week, with the news the Sharks will make Marleau’s No. 12 the first number retired in franchise history.

I think they actually sum up the argument, outside of San Jose at least, pretty well. Julian is … let’s call it not wrong. Marleau’s resume does lack some of the usual indicators of a Hall of Fame career. And Ian is also correct in pointing out that, for some people, there are only two numbers that will matter — 500 goals and the games played record.

There are five players with 500-plus career goals who have been eligible for HHOF induction who are not enshrined — Keith Tkachuk (538), Pat Verbeek (522), Pierre Turgeon (515), Jeromy Roenick (513) and Peter Bondra (503). For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t vote for any of those players, but I have advocated for Alexander Mogilny (473) and voted for him in The Athletic’s mock HHOF selection committee exercise.

Personally, I’m a “small Hall” person. There have been several players inducted into the HHOF in recent years that wouldn’t be in a smaller Hall of Fame, but every sport (except for baseball writers and their weird legislative fetish about the steriods era) is trending in that direction.

I don’t think Alfredsson has a significant impact on Marleau. He took a few years to get in, and his per-game numbers are better across the board than Marleau’s. While Marleau does have 40 more points than Alfredsson, it’s across 500 more games. Alfredsson’s peak was definitely more impactful, and he’s got more higher finishes in major award voting to show he was considered one of the best in the league/at his position in his prime more often.

The Sedins are interesting though. I’d suggest that while Alfredsson had a better case for the HHOF, I’m not sure the Sedins actually do. That feels more like a narrative-driven wave. Like, just ask some random hockey fans in 2022 if they think the Sedin twins are worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame and you’re getting a whole bunch of yeses. Their career numbers are not quite that impressive. But they have both won an MVP award (Henrik won the Hart, while Daniel won the Lester Pearson/Ted Lindsey), and both were twice named postseason All-Stars.

It’s really three different types of HHOF cases. The Sedins had a brief peak, but were elite of the elite at their best. Alfredsson had a long peak as a world-class player, but with less hardware. Marleau has a compiler’s resume, but with a couple of big-time bullet points.

Ian also pointed out another advantage for Marleau — his inclusion on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. It could be a tiebreaker in the HHOF committee room some day. There are hundreds of thousands of words spilled on the Hall of Fame every year, but the reality is it comes down to the thoughts of 18 people in one room. And while the composition of the people in that room may continue to change over time, it’s a pretty good bet that being part of that 2010 Canadian Olympic team is going to be a big positive for anyone’s resume.

We haven’t even dug into the idea that a “first-ballot” candidate is largely a silly disclaimer. Is anyone going to care in 10 or 20 years if Alfredsson wasn’t a first-ballot guy but the Sedins were? No. Sometimes it just comes down to who is eligible in a given year.

Eligibility is three years from when you last played hockey, not the NHL (hence the reason why Jaromir Jagr hasn’t landed on the ballot yet, but Chris Pronger was inducted while his contract was still on the books in Arizona). Because Marleau did not play this past season, he should be eligible with the class of 2024. That’s important, because the 2025 class looks like it could be very crowded.

Duncan Keith, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask and Dustin Brown have also retired in 2022. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron haven’t committed to playing hockey next season. Joe Thornton hasn’t either. Pavel Datsyuk has told media in Russia that he is retiring. Even if Bergeron and Thornton do play somewhere next season, Datsyuk, Chara and Keith would be first-ballot locks in 2025. That would only leave one spot for men’s players, which could still include players like Mogilny and Henrik Zetterberg if they don’t get in over the next couple of cycles.

The only obvious men’s player for 2023 is Henrik Lundqvist. It would help Marleau’s case if three other borderline candidates join Lundqvist, potentially strengthening the case for Marleau and also clearing out three contenders for 2024.

The first-ballot thing shouldn’t matter. If Marleau is a Hall of Fame worthy player in 2024, he should go in. The limits on players allowed in, and making players wait for years, is weird. Players shouldn’t be admitted just because it was a down year for first-year eligibles so there’s a chance to let other fringe candidates in.

Finally, I’ll close with this — I’ve always believed that the jersey retirement is above the Hockey Hall of Fame in the sport’s top honors. I don’t think getting into the HHOF automatically makes you someone who should have their number retired, and I don’t think the HHOF should be a requirement for the jersey honor.

There are some NHL teams that have, in my opinion, retired way too many numbers, given the overall success of the franchise or the individual success of those players. It’s an honor that should be reserved for only the most iconic players in franchise history, but that’s just my opinion. Now that I’m getting older, that could be positioned as an old guy opinion, but I’ve felt that way since my first year on an NHL beat when I was 24.

Marleau is a no-doubt, slam-dunk candidate to have his No. 12 placed in the rafters at SAP Center, and the Sharks are absolutely doing the right thing by honoring him now and not waiting. And No. 19 should go next to No. 12 after Thornton officially retires. And … let’s leave anyone else out of this for now.

That might make for a good story idea later in the season, anyway.

(Top photo of Mario Ferraro: Stan Szeto / USA Today)

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