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San Jose Sharks

Nieto Making Most of Opportunity on Scoring Line

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Credit: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

PHOENIX – Change a player’s role, get a different player.

Last year, Matt Nieto was used primarily as a third-line shutdown winger by Bob Boughner. Nieto and regular linemates Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano couldn’t transcend the role, and Nieto had just six goals and 11 assists in 70 games.

This season, David Quinn has elevated Nieto to the second line next to Logan Couture and Alexander Barabanov, and credit to the 30-year-old, he’s responded. In just 38 games, he already has eight goals. Since Oct. 27, when he was installed next to Couture and Barabanov, he’s scored seven goals in 29 games, including the game-winner last night in a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

Nieto isn’t the most-skilled player, but he doesn’t need to be with Couture and Barabanov.

“I think when you have successful lines, you got different pieces to it. It’s not just all related to skill,” Quinn said. “And that being said, Matt certainly has enough skill to complement both Barbie and Cooch.”

“I think there’s a lot of guys, a lot of centermen that would be lining up to have him on their line because of how hard he works and the puck battles that he wins,” Couture shared.

Besides the grit, here are a couple of skill areas where Nieto has complemented Couture and Barabanov.

Per SPORTLOGiQ, Nieto is third on the San Jose Sharks with 9.04 Offensive Zone Pass Completions Per 20 at 5-on-5, trailing only Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier. Essentially, he’s doing a good job of distributing the puck to his linemates in the OZ.

Last season, Nieto was seventh on the Sharks in the same category at 6.59 OZ Pass Completions Per 20.

Like I said, change a player’s role, get a different player.

Nieto isn’t just handing off the puck to his linemates either. From blueline to blueline, he’s one of the better Sharks at keeping possession of the puck. Nieto has the third-best Dump-In (behind Meier and Hertl) and second-best Dump-Out Rate (behind Meier) on the team, meaning the winger is not dumping the puck in or out – you can usually count on him to enter or exit the zone with possession or with a pass.

Nieto was 16th and seventh on the Sharks last season in these respective categories, so the winger has adjusted his game effectively to the new regime.

“He brings a little bit of different element to that line, he’s a little bit more of a straightforward player, he’s got a little bit, I wouldn’t say more edge to him,” Quinn said, “but he plays a little bit of a different style of game which I think complements that line well, and gives them a little bit of a different look.”

Part of Nieto’s straight-forward game is his willingness to crash the net. We saw that in full effect in his goal:

Look at 5-foot-11 Nieto (83) drive the net, dragging 6-foot-5 Josh Brown (3) on his back. Six of Nieto’s eight goals this season, per Hockey Viz, have been in the blue paint or adjacent.

“I just tried to use my speed to get past him there. But he’s obviously a big, strong guy. So luckily he didn’t finish his check on me,” Nieto quipped.

Sharks Locker Room: Quinn Explains Benching Labanc, Couture Candid About Mullett Arena Experience

Can Nieto keep this up? He’s always been a hard-working bottom-six penalty killer, can he be more?

On one hand, it’s been five years since he’s crossed double-digit goals. But on the other hand, maybe he’s a player who just needed more responsibility?

“He’s an honest player,” the San Jose Sharks head coach offered. “You know what you’re getting out of Matt night in and night out. He’s a very reliable guy.”

This, along with 15 goals, is a pretty valuable forward. Nieto is on pace for what would be a career-high 16 this season.

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