SAN JOSE -- Envisioning Matt Nieto’s name on the Sharks’ Opening Night roster is probably a stretch. Based on their veterans, the number of one-way contracts they posses, and rookie Tomas Hertl already playing in a top nine role for the Sharks, Nieto may have to continue his nascent professional career in AHL Worcester.
But, that doesn’t mean the 20-year-old Long Beach native can’t open some eyes at training camp. It seems as if he’s doing just that.
“Speed,” is Todd McLellan’s reply, when asked what comes to mind regarding Nieto. “When I think of Matty, I think of a quick, attacking-type player. On top of pucks, creating turnovers, challenging the opposition with his speed and tenacity.”
Worcester head coach Roy Sommer got an up-close look at Nieto late last season, after Nieto signed his first professional contract on April 3 and was immediately assigned to San Jose’s AHL affiliate. In 11 games with Worcester, he tallied two goals and three assists. Prior to that, he led Boston University in goals with 18 in 39 games, while adding 17 assists.
Since then, Nieto has taken part in the Sharks’ mid-summer rookie camp, the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, British Columbia, and now his first NHL training camp. He survived the first round of cuts earlier last week, and made his preseason debut on Friday night against Anaheim, skating for more than 17 minutes and registering two shots on goal.
“You can see his skill level and his quickness, but I think the adjustment from college to even the American League level is a bit of an adjustment for him,” Sommer said. “But, I think him getting experience in development camp, in rookie camp, and what he’s showing now in camp, he’s caught the coach’s eye.”
The biggest knock on Nieto is his size, and he’s currently listed at a (generous) five-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Adding some muscle to his frame has been a priority in the offseason, but he doesn’t want to get so bulky that it takes away from his single biggest asset.
“I got up to 190, so I think that’s a good weight for me,” Nieto said. “I don’t want to lose speed, either, so I think that is perfect.”
“I think I need to be more physical, especially in on the forecheck, and throw my body around a little more.”
According to McLellan, Nieto’s frame might not hinder him too much. The Sharks’ head coach was impressed with how Nieto played in Penticton, paying particular attention to one of the Sharks’ best prospects.
In fact, Nieto, a second round pick in 2011, rarely had to dust himself off and get back on his skates, according to McLellan.
“I watched him in Penticton and kind of zeroed in on him. He took a lot of bangs and bumps, and was rarely on the ice,” McLellan said. “Is he going to be able to power his way past a Shea Weber? I don’t know. But, I think that he has ability to stay on his feet. He’s got great balance and he’s wiry, so he can roll off of a lot of the hits.
“There’s some small players that have played in the league that are very good with their positional play and with their stick. They don’t have to go up against the big guys physically, they can outsmart and out-quick them.”
Nieto didn’t hesitate when asked which player currently in the NHL he tries to model his game after, naming the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp. But, before anyone starts comparing him to the impressive Chicago forward, he has to at least make his NHL debut.
If that doesn’t come on Oct. 3 against the Canucks, Nieto is hopeful that it happens at some point this season.
“It would be nice to be up here at some point this year. That’s definitely a goal of mine,” he said. “But, that stuff’s out of my control. The only thing I can focus on is playing my best, and that’s what I’m going to do.”