03/29/2014 2:02 PM -
With his transformation as a player nearly complete, Landon Ferraro has recast his role in a way that will ultimately make him a better pro.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Landon Ferraro smiles when he thinks about his maturation process, how he had to modify his style of play in order to become a more responsible player at both ends of the ice, how he learned that being defensively responsible was an attribute that was just as important as being able to score goals.
Now in his third year with the Griffins, Ferraro has come to grips with the development process.
"Coming into Grand Rapids, I thought, ‘I'll play half a year here and then I can move on,’" Ferraro said, relaxing after a recent practice at Van Andel Arena. "I don't know one player who doesn't think that way, but you figure out pretty quickly that between maturing as a player and learning what role you're going to play – not to mention building strength – it's going to take time. I feel like I finally figured that out."
Ferraro turned pro after a junior hockey career as a pure offensive-minded prospect. With diligence and determination, he’s worked to discredit that description, remaking himself into a defensive force and becoming one of the top penalty killers in the American Hockey League.
"Honestly, I'm a completely different player today," Ferraro said. "Before, I was all offense. My attitude was 'If you get scored on, you get scored on.' It wasn't that big of a deal. Now I understand that if I want to move up to the NHL, I've got to be a solid two-way player."
To remodel himself as a player, Ferraro had to rethink the way he approached the game.
"Defense has to come first – I've got to be sure that I'm good on that side of the puck," he said. "I have to be really good on the penalty kill with my speed and blocking shots. I need to create energy. I need to forecheck and hit. My play has matured. I now understand what I need to do."
It wasn't an easy transformation.
“Growing up, I never thought I would enjoy trying to get in front of a shot," he said. "Now I realize it's something that can set me apart from other players. I can be good on the power play, but I can be even better on the penalty kill with my speed and being able to read the play a bit."
Ferraro learned that keeping the puck out of the net can be just as important as putting it in.
"I enjoy being on the PK (penalty kill)," Ferraro said. "We go through stretches on this team where we take too many penalties and our PK needs to bail us out. I like being one of the six guys who are counted on to do that."
Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill likes how Ferraro has worked to make himself into a well-rounded player.
"Landon is continuing to develop as a hockey player," Blashill said. "Over the course of the last two seasons, he's learned how to become a good two-way player. If you're not a good two-way player, I don't think you can be very effective at this level and I certainly don't think you're going to have much opportunity to play at the next level."
Indeed, Blashill has high praise for Ferraro's work ethic, especially when the Griffins find themselves shorthanded.
"He's become a really elite penalty killer – he's one of our top guys all the time," Blashill said. "He's got two great assets in his speed and his shot. He can score goals and he can really skate. What he can do now and he's continuing to learn is to use that speed as a defensive asset just as much as an offensive asset. He can create tons of back pressure by doing a good job of winning races and getting back to our net."
Ferraro credits Blashill for convincing him that his game needed an added dimension.
"He's always said that my best assets are my speed and my shot, but he made me realize that I'm not going to make it on my shot alone because I don't score enough," Ferraro. "We had many conversations about it. He's told me that I'm going to break into the NHL on the strength of being good defensively and being very good on the PK. And I agree with that 100 percent."
Ferraro said it was all a matter of embracing his weaknesses.
"I feel like I'm pretty honest with my skill set and what I'm able to do and not do," he said. "In junior, there were times where I felt I could take over a game and here I can have games where I feel like I play really well, where I carry the puck and get lots of shots. But when I see the skill set of top-end players, I realize that I can try all I want but I'm never going to be Pavel Datsyuk. I just need to play my game and use my abilities as best I can."
He's also trying to make himself more versatile. He's learning to play both wings after coming into the AHL as a pure center – a competency that is a lot harder to achieve than it may sound to someone who has never played the game.
"It's something I'm still working on," he admitted.
"When you're playing center, you're down low and you're moving all the time. As the puck starts moving up the ice, typically everything is in front of you and you can really use your speed a lot more because you can see everything. You can hit the gaps and make sure you get to the right spots.
"On the wing, you're usually at the start of the play and everything is trying to catch up to you. The biggest change for me was playing on the left side, which I didn't really play until this year. It doesn't sound like that big of a difference, but when you get the puck along the boards, I'm used to looking left with the puck on my forehand.
"Playing left wing, I have to look right, with the puck on my backhand, and everything's coming at me in a different direction, which is a completely different feeling. On right wing, everything feels natural for me, but on the left, I find myself looking for a play beforehand because it takes another half-second to make a play, just to get the puck from my backhand to my forehand. Looking to the right the first time was a little surreal."
In the long run, being able to play all three forward positions should prove to be invaluable for Ferraro's future and should increase his opportunities at the next level.
"Instead of only four slots (centering one of four lines), I now have the ability to fill 12," he said. "There are still things that need work. But it's like anything in life. The first time you do it, you have no idea what you're doing, but as you do it more, you grow more comfortable with it and before you know it, it's second nature. You can just go out and play and not worry about it. You know exactly what you need to do."
Last season marked an important step forward for Ferraro, who scored 24 goals in 72 games after recording nine goals as a rookie in 2011-12. "I felt like I had a decent first year and then Blash came in and he really helped my game," Ferraro said. "He showed a lot of confidence in me early and I was lucky and started putting the puck into the net, which got me a lot more ice time."
He was a pivotal player in the Calder Cup Playoffs last season, even after being relegated to the fourth line when Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson returned to Grand Rapids following the Red Wings' playoff ouster.
"I could tell that Blash almost felt bad about telling me that he had to move me down to another line," Ferraro recalled. "I told him, 'I've never won anything before. Honestly, I don't care. As long as I'm still out there, I'm totally fine with it.' Obviously it paid off."
Ferraro centered a ferocious fourth line with Mitch Callahan and Triston Grant during the Calder Cup Finals against Syracuse, and the trio collectively accounted for four goals and eight assists in the six games.
The whole Calder Cup run is something that Ferraro will never forget.
"The best part was the feeling after we won," he said. "Going through the playoffs, you're not thinking about it, you're just playing and playing and then you're done. After the celebration, everything starts aching and you realize what you just put your body through.
"I didn't feel that good physically, but at the same time, it was the best feeling because you realize what can happen when you push your body to the limit. You think about how everybody worked so hard to make sure that we got it done. When you're relaxing the next week, you have these little flashbacks of the playoffs, and it's just the best feeling."
Ferraro had high hopes coming into training camp last fall, but he broke his foot in an exhibition game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He missed only three regular season games, but it took a few weeks before he felt like he was back at full strength.
"I'm not going to use that as an excuse because I was happy with my recovery and rehab," he said. "I had a slow start, but I think I've been playing better lately. Obviously, I'd like to see a few more pucks go into the net, but if I keep playing the right way and be good defensively, that's the biggest thing."
Ferraro did his best to stay positive while watching the Red Wings recall Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening ahead of him, and his patience was rewarded on March 18 when he made his Detroit debut at Joe Louis Arena against his favorite childhood team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, with his dad in attendance.
Ferraro is in the final season of a three-year entry level contract. Next season, he will not be waiver-exempt, which means he will have to earn a spot in Detroit or the Red Wings would risk losing him on the waiver wire if they attempted to send him back to Grand Rapids.
"I do my best not to think about it," Ferraro said. "When I get thinking about it, I can look back over every one of our games and I can tell you which ones I was thinking ahead because I didn't play that well.
"Once you get ahead of yourself, you're in trouble. If I'm thinking about next year, I have no chance to do well tomorrow night. It's better to stay in the moment. You need to be mature and realize that it's something you need to accept and that there are guys ahead of you and guys behind you and all you can do is to do the work to separate yourself."
Not looking too far ahead is something that he hears frequently from his father, Ray Ferraro, who played 18 seasons in the NHL after starting his pro career in the AHL.
"You have to make sure you're playing your best so that when the opportunity comes, you can take advantage of it. My dad was in the minor leagues in Binghamton when the team was affiliated with Hartford and someone broke their leg and he got his chance. And before he knew it, a couple of pucks went in and he never looked back."
So while he bides his time in Grand Rapids, Ferraro is doing everything he can to improve all aspects of his play.
"Everybody wants to be in Detroit, but if you don't do your work here, you're never going to get the chance," he said. "I feel like I've taken advantage of opportunities and I've put myself into a position where I'm ready to get a chance. But at the same time, there's just no room right now, so I just have to keep playing here and do everything I can to make sure I'm prepared."
Blashill remains confident that Ferraro is on the right track.
"The past two years have been a great learning process for Landon," Blashill said. "He's becoming the kind of complete two-way player that will make him an outstanding pro."
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