Entering the 2020 offseason with $22.4 million in cap space, some believed the Colorado Avalanche would make a splash in free agency. However, with several key restricted free agents, the idea of spending elsewhere remains a long shot. General manager Joe Sakic made a clear statement on draft night to emphasize that point.
Therefore, with the cap situation tighter than expected, the Avalanche should strongly consider re-signing Matt Nieto. The defensive-oriented forward played a key role in the Avs’ bottom six for the past three and a half years.
Early NHL Career
After he completed a solid first season for the Boston University Terriers, the San Jose Sharks selected Nieto 47th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Following the draft, he returned to Boston University for two more seasons. Nieto developed into a dominant player contributing to 79 points in 76 games.
The Boston University alum made his NHL debut for the Sharks during the 2013-14 season. His rookie season proved to be a solid one, as he posted 24 points in 66 games. The 21-year-old also contributed to an impressive five points in seven games of the 2014 playoffs. Despite the Sharks historically blowing a 3-0 series lead to the eventual 2014 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Nieto was showing real promise.
Yet, in his second and third seasons, Nieto failed to break out the way the Sharks had hoped. By the beginning of the 2016-17 season, his fourth year in the league, Nieto became expendable for San Jose upon the development of emerging young forwards Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc. Therefore, on Jan. 5, 2017, the American forward was placed on waivers. Being last in the league by a landslide, the Avalanche claimed Nieto.
Finding a New Role in Denver
Upon his arrival in Denver, the Avalanche were in complete disarray. With playoff hopes well in the rearview mirror, the coaching staff geared their focus on young players. Therefore, Nieto averaged a career-high of 15:56 of ice-time per game under Jared Bednar. In his first season for the Avs, Nieto started to step into a more defensive-oriented role.
By that time, it was clear he would never be a top-six forward given his inconsistent offensive production. In his first four seasons in the league, he contributed to 35 goals and 46 assists in 264 games. Yet, with his brilliant skating ability, work rate, and hockey sense, Nieto had the tools to become a defensive specialist. From the 2017-18 season onwards, the winger became a key contributor on the Avalanche’s penalty kills.
Perhaps the 2019-20 season was his best thus far. The winger ranked first in shorthanded ice-time amongst the Avalanche forwards with 2:21 per game. Consequently, 59.1 percent of his zone starts were in the defensive zone.
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Despite being put into difficult situations, the 27-year-old was able to shine. While executing his defensive role with pride, Nieto finished the season with a 51.4 Corsi for percentage and a plus-seven rating. Offensively, he contributed 8 goals and 13 assists in 70 games. Amongst those were two shorthanded goals.
Nieto’s Future In Colorado
As mentioned earlier, Nieto is not priority No. 1 for Colorado’s front office. They have numerous restricted free agents, including Valeri Nichushkin, Tyson Jost, and Andre Burakovsky, that they want to re-sign before addressing Nieto’s contract situation. With that said, the American winger will most likely get the chance to test the market. With a big payday unlikely, Colorado is going to be in a position to negotiate. Sakic should be looking at a short-term deal in the one to two-year length in the range of $1.5 million per year.
If the Nieto’s camp asked for north of $2 million annually, the Avalanche have to walk away from the table. Despite being a key defensive piece for the Avs, if his asking price is too high, expect the front office and coaching staff to find other solutions on the roster to fill his void on the penalty kill going forward.