The San Jose Sharks will have plenty of young talent on the wings next season. With Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc looking to improve after their last two seasons left management and fans wanting more, Rudolfs Balcers and Ryan Donato showing their NHL scoring capabilities last year, and youngsters Jonathon Dahlen, John Leonard, Joachim Blichfeld, Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, and Ivan Chekhovich looking for NHL spots, the Sharks have plenty of depth at the position.
And, not to mention, Evander Kane is coming off possibly his best season with San Jose where he tallied 22 goals and 49 points in 56 games and will be under contract for many years to come. Alexander Barabanov also signed a one-year extension worth $1 million after he notched seven points in his nine-game trial with the Sharks.
However, Doug Wilson has opted to add a veteran winger to the stable, inking Long Beach native Matt Nieto to a two-year extension. In his second stint with San Jose, Nieto had five goals and seven points in 28 games and played a prominent penalty-killing role.
Why Keep Nieto?
I’m not entirely sure. The coaching staff very much trusted Nieto with defensive responsibilities. His defensive zone start percentage was the highest on the team. So, take his numbers with a grain of salt, as he was set up for mainly defense-oriented shifts.
Regardless, Nieto’s numbers were pretty poor this season. His ability to control shot attempts at even strength was among the worst on the team. His and Dylan Gambrell’s numbers in this metric are deflated because of where their shifts often began, but Nieto’s Corsi for percentage of 44.6 was one of the worst of any Shark that played over 20 games.
Relative expected goals percentage is a metric that shows how well a team controls scoring chances with a player on versus off the ice. A positive percentage means the team benefits in scoring chances when a given player is on the ice. Nieto’s minus-17.2% (Per MoneyPuck) is the worst of the Sharks that played a large sample size.
Although some small sample sizes were present, when it comes to scoring even-strength points per 60 minutes, Nieto finds himself under Leonard, Blichfeld, Donato, Chmelevski, and Chekhovich in efficiency providing offense at 5-on-5.
The main reason to keep Nieto is that Bob Boughner and the coaching staff, despite a pretty poor season, trust him defensively and like him as a penalty killer. With Gambrell possibly being selected by Seattle, Nieto adds assurance that one of Boughner’s favorite defensive forwards will return next year.
When the Sharks signed Dahlen to his contract, they met the minimum requirement for exposed forwards in the upcoming expansion draft, assuming they elect to protect 7F/3D/1G.
As of right now, I see Wilson protecting Kane, Meier, Labanc, Balcers, Dahlen, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture. That would leave restricted free agents Donato and Gambrell exposed, along with Nieto. I also could see the Sharks protecting Donato over Couture and assume that Seattle general manager Ron Francis does not want to touch Couture’s six years remaining at $8 million per year. Regardless, Nieto will be unprotected.
Given age, flexibility to play center, and likely similar price, I cannot see Seattle giving Nieto any thought when Gambrell is available. So, the decision to retain Nieto for two more seasons is likely unrelated to Seattle.
Impact on the Youngsters
So, for the next two seasons, the former San Jose second-round pick will be under contract. Before Nieto’s re-signing with the Sharks, I saw there to be seven locks for the team’s starting eight wingers in Kane, Meier, Labanc, Barabanov, Leonard, Balcers, and Donato. Of course, possible expansion selection and trades throw a wrench into that list.
Gregor, who plays a similar speedy style to Nieto offensively, also had five goals this season, and in my opinion over the last two seasons has shown he’s an NHL-level player. He had 9 points in 10 AHL games when he was sent down, but the 22-year-old proved too fast for that league and was able to excel mainly on just that ability.
Chmelevski, who became dominant when moved from center to winger in the AHL near the end of the season, also will warrant more NHL looks. He finished the AHL season with 16 points in his last 13 games and had two assists in five NHL games in brief looks there. He started slow with the San Jose Barracuda, but finished great and still has room to grow as he only recently turned 22.
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Another rookie champing at the bit for NHL playing time is Blichfeld. The Danish sniper has been probably been the Barracuda’s best forward two years in a row, finishing last year with 12 goals and 22 points in 25 games. In the NHL, he added a goal in five games. Also 22 years old, he has shown he can dominate the AHL with his goalscoring and deserves more looks at the NHL.
Dahlen and Chekhovich are also offensively gifted wingers that need NHL experience. Chekhovich produced great offensive numbers in the KHL, but transitioning back to North America proved somewhat difficult for the 22-year-old. Dahlen, 23, led second division Swedish hockey in points two years in a row, and will have a one-way contract entering 2021-22.
Nieto is older and has less upside than all these players who I project to be battling for the last spot. The added security of a two-year deal is also weird. Considering the youth the Sharks have at wing, one or more of the prospects I mentioned likely will develop into a decent NHLer.
Overall, I think the retention of Nieto makes little sense. He proved ineffective in the role the coaching staff gave him, and at 28 years old, there’s little reason to expect improvement in his results.
Nieto, Hertl, Kane, Gambrell, and Couture make up the main penalty-killing forwards for the Sharks. Nieto will need to prove effective in that role and produce better offensive results at even strength than the youngsters he will play over for this deal to make sense in my eyes.