SAN JOSE -– Entering his third NHL season, Sharks forward Matt Nieto still possesses some of the most important traits that got him here.
When it comes to speed, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is among the fastest players on the team. When it comes to hockey IQ, Nieto is typically in the right spot at the right time, as evidenced by his positive advanced metrics. When it comes to maturity and confidence, Nieto comes across as a guy well beyond his 22 years of age.
What was frustrating last season, though, was that Nieto just wasn’t able to contribute enough on the scoresheet despite typically skating in a top nine role. The looks and chances were there, but the finishing touch was not. Nieto finished the season with just 10 goals and 27 points in 72 games, and although his production increased a bit late in the year, it was an overall disappointing campaign.
“I just think it was inconsistent,” Nieto said. “I had stretches where I played good, and long stretches where I wasn’t producing much. I think it was a good year for me to learn how to snap out of those droughts, if you want to call it that. I think I learned what I have to do when I’m in those situations.”
It would be preferable for Nieto to avoid those kinds of droughts, of course, such as the one that saw him score just one goal in a 28-game span. With that in mind, Nieto worked with shooting coach Ron Johnson over the summer. Based in Vancouver, Johnson, who has previously worked with Joe Pavelski, spent some time in the Bay Area in the offseason.
“I think it was good for me,” Nieto said. “I felt good snapping pucks and getting them off quicker. I think last year, and the previous two years I had a lot blocked. Just a quicker release, and hopefully it works out for me.”
Pavelski said working with Johnson could “just give [Nieto] a fresh look on things. Obviously last year he had enough chances to probably score a few more times. … You need to work on things, especially in today’s game. It’s good to see. There are a lot of guys in here that have done a little extra this summer, and it’s good to see guys take control.”
Nieto has seemingly found a place in camp on what would be considered the Sharks’ third line, skating with center Tomas Hertl and winger Tommy Wingels. Now that there is s just one week until the season opener, it’s becoming more likely that those three will play together against the Kings. In four preseason games, Nieto is scoreless with 7 shots on goal.
There will be pressure on him to increase his scoring output. The Sharks are much deeper at forward than they have been in many years, and Nieto doesn’t fit the mold of a typical fourth liner.
Conversely, if he utilizes his new skills and puts the puck in the net more often, his career could be primed to take off. The Sharks are counting on their younger players having better seasons than last year, and Nieto is firmly among that group.
“I think it has to happen if we’re going to go deep,” Nieto said. “Every team that goes deep, it’s four lines and their third and fourth lines can contribute and play a lot of minutes. It doesn’t matter who they’re out there with. I think we’ve got to get to that, and we definitely have the players in here to do that.”
Pete DeBoer briefly relayed what he’s seen from Nieto so far.
“I think he’s in that group of guys that are competing to show us what he is as a player,” DeBoer said. “I like some of the things I’ve seen: the speed, the versatility. I think for that whole group of guys it’s a continuing audition to see where they slot in once we get started.”