SAN JOSE -- This time last year, Matt Nieto was still a virtual unknown in NHL circles. Sure, the 2011 second round pick was among the Sharks’ top prospects, but the Boston University product was no lock to make the opening night roster.
Fast forward 12 months later, and Nieto, 21, has spent all of training camp in the Sharks’ top six. He’s been slotted on the right wing of the Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau line, where he finished the season last year, and will be counted on to continue his progression after an inspiring rookie year of 24 points (10g, 14a) in 66 games.
“The only thing that changes is probably my comfort level around everyone,” said Nieto, who scored a gorgeous breakaway goal in Sunday's scrimamge. “I’m not as nervous this year. But, nothing changes as far as working as hard as I can and trying to leave an impression. No spot is guaranteed, and I really want to earn it.”
Todd McLellan said: “We’re just looking for him to make strides. Move forward. Improve his overall game. Accept a little more responsibility.”
Despite being named Sharks Co-Rookie of the Year with Tomas Hertl, Nieto’s first season was not without its hiccups. The Long Beach native seemed to fatigue at times, had some brief stints in the minors, was relegated to fourth line duty some nights and was a health scratch for a handful of games.
That’s not uncommon for skilled forwards trying to break into the league, especially college players, who typically don’t have more than 40 or so games a year and aren’t used to playing every other night. Nieto needs to get stronger, and it’s something he was conscious of in his offseason training.
“I tried to put weight on, and did a good job of doing that,” said Nieto, who added that he now checks in at 190 pounds. “I feel in the best shape of my life right now. It’s a grueling camp, a grueling couple of weeks, so it’s really important to be in good shape.”
The University of Wisconsin’s Joe Pavelski remembered his transition from college to the pros.
“You definitely have to manage yourself in certain ways, because there are long points during the season where you’re scraping for energy,” he said. “You try and take care of yourself.”
The Sharks coaching staff frequently mentions that Nieto, despite being smaller in stature -- he’s generously listed at five-foot-10 -- is strong on his skates and rarely gets knocked over. His biggest asset is his speed, though, so he has to walk that line of trying to get bulk up without hindering his explosive skating ability.
“I know what weight I’m comfortable playing at, and where I’m my best and my fastest. It’s just a matter of maintaining that,” he said.
Sharks management has mentioned countless times that it would like to get the younger players more involved this season, and Nieto is a huge part of that future core. Along with a potential role on one of the top two scoring lines, Nieto could see more special teams action.
McLellan said: “I think that eventually he can become a power play player. He’s got tremendous skills and a quickness that’s an asset to any line or any special teams situation. I think he can improve in that area.
“Second year players, you can’t burden them with too much. They have to continue to grow and evolve, and we’ll watch it on a daily basis.”
Nieto is on the right path.
Pavelski said: “Any time you’re smart with some speed, you can put yourself in a lot of right positions.”