Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which Kevin Kurz will highlight a different Sharks player every day leading up to the start of training camp.
Name/Position: Matt Nieto, F
2015-16 cap hit/contract: $759,166, pending RFA
2014-15 year in review: In his sophomore season, Matt Nieto posted 10 goals and 27 points in 72 games. Although his -12 rating was the second lowest mark on the team (only Patrick Marleau’s -17 was worse), Nieto managed to post a +94 in shot attempts, or the sixth best total on the Sharks. Early in the season, Nieto was one of the NHL’s best players in terms of possession metrics.
Still, the speedy Nieto had a difficult time producing. He scored in the season opener in Los Angeles, but then went 22 straight games without finding the back of the net. He started playing better as the calendar turned to December, but an unfortunately time ankle injury sidelined him for nine games. He returned to score just one goal in his next 28 games.
Late in the year Nieto found a home on the third line with Chris Tierney and Tommy Wingels, scoring six goals and four assists over the last 18 games in an encouraging finish.
2015-16 outlook: It’s safe to say that the Sharks expected more out of Nieto last season after a promising rookie year. He was put in a position to succeed, too, spending more than 33 percent of his ice time with Marleau and Logan Couture (although, to be fair to Nieto, Marleau was a burden on his linemates many nights).
Nieto will be pushed in training camp to keep his place on one of the top three scoring lines. Joel Ward will certainly claim one spot, while a guy like Nikolay Goldobin could be ready to make the jump to the NHL. I don’t see Nieto as a fourth line player, so if he struggles in training camp or experiences the same kind of scoring slumps he did last season, he could potentially end up playing a few games for the AHL Barracuda while he’s still waiver-exempt.
Nieto’s strong finish, combined with his ability to play in the other team’s end could suggest that he was simply unlucky last season – an argument often proposed by the advanced stats community. While I think those kinds of stats – like any stats – don’t tell the full story, there could be some element of truth to them in Nieto’s case.
Last September while taping the Sharks Season Preview show, I chose Nieto as my player most likely to break out. It didn’t happen, but it could very well happen this year. Nieto is a confident, mature-for-his-age guy, so I tend to think he’ll come to training camp fully aware that he’ll have to be better than he was in 2014-15.