SAN JOSE -- Matt Nieto’s “Welcome to the NHL” moment may have come in the Sharks’ game in Boston on Oct. 24.
During that last-second 2-1 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champions, Nieto blocked a Dennis Seidenberg shot with his hand. He medicated the hand and played the next night in Montreal, in what was arguably his best game of the season, before sitting out the next two.
Since then, it’s been a bit of a struggle. Nieto returned to the lineup on Nov. 2 against Phoenix and had an assist, but he’s scoreless in his last seven games. The 20-year-old rookie was a healthy scratch for the first time against Tampa Bay on Thursday, making room for Brent Burns’ return.
Nieto, who has two goals and four assists in 19 games, reacted to his removal from the lineup after practice on Friday.
“I’m still learning. It’s my first year, and it’s early in the season,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a lot of stars on the team to look up to and learn from, and they’re helping me out along the way. It’s just one of those things. I kind of got away from my game a little bit, but I’m waiting for my next opportunity.”
Nieto, a Long Beach native, specifically mentioned fellow Americans and previous linemates Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels for helping him through his first NHL season.
Nieto said: “They just say to keep working, whether I’m in the lineup or not, it’s out of my control. All I can do is work hard, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Todd McLellan indicated there are no immediate plans to send Nieto to AHL Worcester, despite the team getting healthier in the form of Burns and Marty Havlat. McLellan was clear that Nieto is not in the coach’s doghouse.
“We don’t think any less of him because he came out of the lineup. It’s just part of the growth process,” McLellan said.
“It’s a tough league to break into. In Matty’s case, he had a little bit of a break when he injured himself, but this is the first one where he actually had an opportunity to sit back and watch. Coaches say it all the time, it’s sometimes good to step back and take a look at the game and see where individuals are successful. You watch a guy like Patrick Marleau skate [on Thursday], and that’s what Matty Nieto does. Hopefully, he puts himself in those shoes and it’ll be a good experience for him.”
Typically, the hardest part for an NHL rookie is getting used to the grind of the schedule. Fellow rookie Tomas Hertl, after his tremendous start, hit a bit of a wall himself late in October when he had just one goal and one assist during an eight-game stretch.
Nieto, listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is much smaller than Hertl. He was asked if he was physically fatigued at all.
“I wouldn’t say that. I think some of it is mental,” Nieto said. “I think ever since my hand injury, my confidence wasn’t the same. I get my confidence from moving my feet, so I think I have to get back to that, getting in on pucks, creating space, and things like that.”
“I think if I was playing like I was in the beginning of the season, I’d have a better chance of being in the lineup, for sure. But, [McLellan] is going to put in whoever he thinks is going to help the team win. It’s out of my control, and I’m just waiting for my next opportunity.”