The San Jose Sharks have re-signed Matt Nieto for two years and $850,000 per season.
It’s a deal that makes sense on many fronts.
The 28-year-old winger proved to be a reliable bottom-six option last season, even playing credible top-six minutes at times.
At a shade over the $750K veteran’s minimum, Nieto is a good deal, and at his age, there’s every reason to believe that’ll he continue his solid play.
That will be a boon for the San Jose Sharks, who didn’t boast a lot of truly dependable bottom-six forwards last year. Nieto is regarded around the league — and last year was no different — as a a playoff-caliber fourth-liner.
“On a good team, he’s a solid fourth-line player,” an NHL scout told San Jose Hockey Now in January.
That may sound like faint praise, but consider all the bottom-six forwards that the San Jose Sharks ran through last year: Rudolfs Balcers, Lean Bergmann, Joachim Blichfeld, Ivan Chekhovich, Sasha Chmelevski, Ryan Donato, Kurtis Gabriel, Dylan Gambrell, Noah Gregor, Fredrik Handemark, Joel Kellman, John Leonard, Patrick Marleau, Nieto, Stefan Noesen, Marcus Sorensen, Antti Suomela, Alexander True, and Jeffrey Viel.
I’ve named 19 forwards, and there are just two — Nieto and Balcers — that I think would be regulars on a playoff team right now. Gambrell is close, but there are also better fourth-line center options than him out there.
Beyond Nieto’s quality as a player, he also helps the San Jose Sharks fulfill expansion draft requirements. The Sharks need to expose two forwards who meet these demands:
- Under contract for 2021-22
- Played in 27 or more NHL games in 2020-21 or in 54 or more NHL games in 2019-20 and 2020-21 combined
At the moment, San Jose has just six forwards who pass these bars — Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, and Nieto — but I’d expect unsigned RFAs Balcers and Gambrell to join this group shortly.
If the Sharks protect seven forwards, as expected — Couture, Kane, Meier, Hertl, Labanc, Balcers, and Jonathan Dahlen is our best guess right now — Nieto and Gambrell will meet exposure demands up front.
Of course, it seems counterintuitive: If Nieto is so good, why would Doug Wilson expose him? But Nieto isn’t better than Couture, Kane, Meier, Hertl, Labanc, or Balcers, and Swedish import Dahlen has more upside.
So between Nieto and Gambrell — safely assuming the Seattle Kraken pass on other likely-exposed Sharks Radim Simek and Martin Jones — the winger Nieto is probably the more reliable player, but the centerman Gambrell is younger and plays a more valuable position. I think San Jose would be happy to keep either.
On the other hand, the San Jose Sharks have three other free agent forwards who meet exposure requirements — Sorensen, Marleau, and Donato — and I’d guess San Jose doesn’t want to end up with any of them next year.
Finally, why two years for Nieto?
It’s a plus for Nieto — the UFA gets another guaranteed year that he might not get on the open market — but at a minimal risk for the San Jose Sharks. Once again, the winger is just 28 and a proven NHL forward, and an extra year probably keeps him from testing the market.
As for the Kraken, it’s hard to say if the extra year for Nieto is a benefit or a deterrence. It depends on how much they like him.
But it certainly could the former: Nieto’s trade value, a la Barclay Goodrow, could be higher at the Trade Deadline because of his greater cost certainty. The cap-strapped Tampa Bay Lightning wouldn’t have given San Jose a first-round pick for Goodrow if he hadn’t been locked down to a multi-year team-friendly contract, $925K each in 2019-20 and 2020-21. This certainly helped with Tampa Bay’s team construction over the last two years.
Now Nieto isn’t Goodrow — he’s not going to command a first-round pick — but a franchise planning for more than this season could look favorably on an established NHL winger in his prime making a little more than the veteran’s minimum for two campaigns.
So two years should be a win-win for Nieto, San Jose, and/or Seattle. Even if Nieto’s play declines precipitously, his contract is small enough to be completely buried in the minors. And if he’s as good as expected, $850K is a song for a player of his quality.
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