Two years ago, the Sharks were singing the praises of two rookies that had bounced onto the scene and shocked us all. Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto were brand new faces that seemed destined to shine for the Sharks for years to come. Hertl’s incredible knack for the net and Nieto’s ability to play alongside Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau against tough opponents endeared them to fans. Now, Hertl is looking to make the jump from rising youngster to household name; while Nieto is hardly mentioned at all.
Is Nieto Actually Declining?
In his first two seasons, Nieto spent most of his minutes on the second line with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. Not an easy ask of a kid from Long Beach right out of the gate. His line frequently faced the toughest competition and played vicious minutes. Yet, Nieto posted a respectable line his first season. 24 points with 10 goals and a -4 rating is very solid for a young skater. His second season, while his point production increased, saw a dramatic drop defensively. The aging Patrick Marleau may have helped this number a bit, but his plus/minus plummeted to -12.
Now, nine games into a fresh season and Nieto hasn’t really made any headlines this year. With four points in 9 contests, his points may still be holding steady at his old rates, but for a player fighting for ice time, that’s not enough.
He only has one goal this season and that came as an empty netter that he didn’t even really want. He was attempting a pass when a bounce came right back to him and he was able to bury it.
But what made Nieto great wasn’t his scoring numbers, it was his ability to stand up to opponents and neutralize them. Number 83 was a prime example of how advanced stats showed a player’s value. His Corsi For? Down from 52.6 to 49.0. His shot differential? Down to just a +3 from +47 and +35. The one thing that is up, is his goals for (66.7). But that has a little wrinkle in it.
Nieto has been getting new line combinations more frequently this season. Coach DeBoer has had him mainly on the third line with Tommy Wingels and Chris Tierney. However, he did see around 30 minutes of 5-on-5 time with the top Joe’s (Pavelski and Thornton). In those 30 minutes, his goals for was a perfect 100%, definitely raising that stat. So, it is fair to say that his numbers are a bit skewed by the time he spent with the team’s best. Let’s be honest, the Joe’s could make Mike Brown look good.
When not playing with the very best, Nieto’s numbers are poor. When on the third line (with Wingels), his Corsi drops further to 43.2%, the goals for is down to 33%, and he only has the one solitary point.
What’s the Problem Then?
The answer to solving the struggles of Nieto is definitely not to throw him up to the top line. While his numbers are flashy up there, he simply doesn’t produce enough offensively to play there. A top line forward can’t score less than 30 points in a season, and that’s what Nieto is capable of right now.
What may be contributing to the lack of flash from Nieto, is where he starts his shifts. Because of his proven ability to defend the puck against any competition, Nieto has been asked to start most of shifts playing defense. His 43.75% offensive zone starts is lower than that of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, meaning he is tasked with tougher starts than the Sharks’ best shutdown defender.
The argument that follows is that while he may start in the zone more often, Vlasic still has tougher assignments. That’s not entirely true, however. The average Corsi For percentage of his competition is the highest on the team. At 52.29%, Nieto squeaks by Vlasic’s second best mark of 52.23%. In reality, Nieto has become a weapon to use against an opponent’s tougher players.
If you want his offensive numbers to soar, he needs to be given a little bit more of a chance to play offense! That’s tough to do against difficult competition with your back to your own netminder. But is that really the best way to use him?
No Nonsense Nieto
While Nieto has all but disappeared from the headlines, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He may be going the route of Vlasic in terms of never getting attention from the media. The California native won’t get awards for most points, but he will quietly make plenty of difference. Lack of offense doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of usefulness. While it would be nice to see him create a little more offensively, Nieto’s role as a two way forward cannot be understated. His goals against per 60 is an immaculate 1.18 (again lower than Vlasic’s 1.62). So, why not let him be the calming presence on the bottom six? With a team so starved for balance among four lines, Nieto will be a valuable tool that nobody recognizes.
Kenneth is a graduate of the University of San Francisco in Politics and Chemistry. But his passion in life has always been hockey. He has played since he was four and even coached a few teams. Kenneth writes for the San Jose Sharks at thehockeywriters.com