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What Using Nieto in OT Says About Boughner, Sharks

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Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

It’s not what I would’ve done.

But I get what San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner was trying to do when he started Logan Couture, Matt Nieto, and Brent Burns in overtime against Connor McDavid.

On the surface, it makes no sense: Penalty-killing specialist Nieto entered tonight with just five goals and seven assists in 56 games – and he left the 2-1 OT loss with the same offensive stats after McDavid iced the game during the first shift of OT. McDavid, in comparison, now has 41 goals and 65 assists in 70 contests.

So I asked Boughner to explain.

“You can nullify him, give yourself a chance to win, right?” Boughner said of two-time Hart Trophy winner McDavid. “We got Tommy [and Meier] coming next. Barabanov and Gregor ready to go. Just trying to put some defensive guys out against McDavid.”

It’s worth noting that Burns and Couture aren’t just “defensive guys” – they’ve got 1,412 points between them.

Anyway, another reporter started a question about John Leonard, who left the game after blocking a shot (no update), but Boughner looked back at me, his mind still on my question, and noted, “We had a great chance. Smith made a great play.”

He’s right, by the way – Burns buries, it’s a different story. We might be talking about “fastest skater in the world” McDavid lagging behind Burns on the backcheck. Or Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft starting forward Ryan McLeod, he of eight goals and 10 assists in 60 games, in OT, versus Burns and Couture.

So what would I have done? It’s pretty basic. Start overtime with your best, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Erik Karlsson or Burns. OT, as McDavid demonstrated, can end in the blink of an eye, so start the fight with your top guns.

But this, I wager, was Boughner’s calculation: McDavid is so good, pitting your best against him isn’t an advantageous match-up. So why not give Hertl-Meier a theoretically advantageous match-up over whoever Woodcroft would’ve followed McDavid with – say Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evander Kane?

Not starting with Hertl-Meier is probably your one chance at an advantageous OT match-up, at least up front, against an Oilers squad that’s deeper than yours, even without superstar Leon Draisaitl.

Look at it this way: Hypothetically, you survive Hertl-Meier against McDavid. Couture-Nieto or Gregor-Barabanov or even Couture-Barabanov isn’t better than RNH-Kane.

It was an alert and sensible strategy from Boughner that backfired in spectacular fashion.

This begs the next question: Why Nieto?

But that begs a better question: What exactly were Boughner’s forward choices for a speedy defensive role?

The speedy but more offensive-oriented Leonard left the game. Sasha Chmelevski and Nick Bonino are adept defensively, but their skating isn’t ideal for overtime, especially against a McDavid. Ditto for Scott Reedy or Jonah Gadjovich. There’s an argument for Rudolfs Balcers, I’ll give you that, he’s a decent combo of speed and defense.

You also could’ve played Gregor or Barabanov with Couture. While Couture-Barabanov isn’t ideal defensively, Couture-Gregor could’ve worked.

Gregor is faster than the speedy Nieto – but Nieto is better defensively.

“Nieto is a -21” or “His Expected Goals % is bad” arguments don’t hold water with me – neither are serious methodologies to evaluate an individual’s defensive ability. Both are team stats too often used to define an individual.

But anyway, this is my takeaway from Nieto in OT: Boughner doesn’t have a deep cadre of forwards to choose from, which is more on the San Jose Sharks’ organization than the bench boss.

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