SAN JOSE -- The battle to replace Raffi Torres in the Sharks’ top nine is on, and it may come down to a couple rookies.
Thanks to Torres’ torn ACL, the door is now wide open for either 20-year-old Matt Nieto or 21-year-old Freddie Hamilton to burst through. Head coach Todd McLellan, his staff, and Sharks management have two preseason games left to evaluate the young prospects and make a decision.
“Both fit our team right now and have battled hard to be here at this point,” McLellan said. “They’re both going to get an opportunity to play on the weekend, and we’ll see where it ends up.”
The Sharks play in Phoenix on Friday and Anaheim on Saturday. The regular season begins on Thursday, Oct. 3 against Vancouver at SAP Center.
Nieto, a second-round draft pick in 2011, skated on the wing in Tuesday’s game against Vancouver. That’s notable in that it’s the place that Torres likely would have started the season.
The biggest knock against Nieto, other than his lack of pro experience, is his size. He’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, but that seems a bit generous when you see Nieto in person or on the ice.
Still, McLellan raved about the Boston University product, who joined Worcester late last season, when asked about him on Thursday.
“He has some assets that we believe can help our team: his speed, he has the ability to hold on to the puck and make plays, for a small man he’s never on the ice. A lot of big guys have taken runs at him and he’s been able to maintain his balance. He’s got a great center of gravity, protects pucks well, he’s been coachable, and I find he fits in well in the locker room. Those are all real positives for him,” McLellan said.
“The question will be is he ready full time? This weekend will be important for him.”
Hamilton didn’t play on Tuesday, but scored a power play goal on Saturday against Phoenix and looked comfortable on a line with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. A fifth-round pick in 2010, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder spent all of last season with AHL Worcester.
McLellan said: “His toolkit is a little bit different. Freddie is a bigger player and perhaps a little more responsible defensively than Matt is, and has a little more pro experience.”
Should either Nieto or Hamilton make the team, the Sharks would start the season with two rookies in their top nine, including highly regarded former first-round pick Tomas Hertl.
For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that could be a reason for concern. Still, the Sharks have had some recent success bringing up players through the system.
Just last season, Matt Irwin fit right in paired with Dan Boyle and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension; Justin Braun is now considered a part of the Sharks’ top shutdown pair with Marc-Edouard Vlasic after his successful 2011-12 campaign; and Logan Couture is now among the best players in the league after the Sharks took their time with the talented center.
“I think this organization has done a good job of not rushing players too quickly to where they are overwhelmed,” Boyle said. “They seem to bring up the players at the right time and guys seem to shine. There are probably going to be one or two in the lineup on Opening Night, and I think there is enough veteran leadership and good guys around here that will make the transition pretty easy.”
Couture doesn’t have to think too far back to his first full season in the NHL in 2010-11. He may have the best perspective when it comes to offering advice to a fresh-faced Sharks rookie.
“Just be ready for the regular season, it jumps up about 10 notches with the intensity and speed of the game,” Couture said. “They’ll get a little taste if they’re playing this weekend, because most teams are going to have their full lineups in.”