SAN JOSE – As a former second round pick that possesses blazing speed, Matt Nieto was drafted by the Sharks in 2011 in the hope that one day he'd become a vital part of the team's offensive attack.
After three NHL seasons, it hasn't quite happened yet. In 205 career games, the Long Beach native has a modest 28 goals and 40 assists for 68 points. Last season could even be viewed as a step backwards, as Nieto posted 10 fewer points (17) in 67 games than he did in 72 games in 2014-15.
Consequently, the Sharks didn't want to commit to Nieto, a restricted free agent, for longer than one more year. Nieto's camp wanted a two-year deal, so he didn't sign his qualifying offer, and instead he ended up with a one-year deal for slightly less money than he made last season.
That plainly makes this a vital year for the 23-year-old, who may be on the verge of getting pushed out by one of the organization's many prospects. To Nieto's credit, he arrived to camp with some added bulk, according to coach Pete DeBoer and others in the organization.
"I think he looks good. He looks like he packed on some muscle. He's a little heavier," DeBoer said.
"He's always had back-you-off type speed. That's something we're obviously looking for. A lot like some other guys here, he brings some things to the table that we could really use."
Nieto is not taking his three-year veteran status for granted.
"There's always something to prove," he said. "Important training camp, important year. Take it day-by-day, and work as hard as I can."
DeBoer and general manager Doug Wilson have emphasized that there are prospects in the organization that may be NHL-ready, and could take the spots of some veterans that have been here for several years. None have been mentioned by name, but Nieto, Tommy Wingels and Melker Karlsson figure to be on the bubble. None of them is signed past this season.
"It's on [Nieto] to come in and have a great start. I think all those guys have to make it so you have no choice to keep playing them," DeBoer said (again, without mentioning any names).
Nieto is presumably gunning for a place somewhere on the third or fourth lines. He's fortunate in that the NHL game continues to trend away from one-dimensional physical players that don't have much skill, as many teams would prefer to roll four lines that can put the puck in the net.
That's what DeBoer is aiming for, and it gives Nieto a better chance at being in the opening night lineup.
"Having four lines that can contribute offensively is something we've been trying to preach and get to since I got here a year ago," DeBoer said. "I think we're set up much better this year to have four lines of scoring depth than maybe when we started last year."
Nieto, though, still has to show he can produce consistent offense. It may be now or never, at least if he wants to remain in a teal jersey.
"I think if you talk to anyone they always feel they want to improve stats-wise," he said. "That's definitely a point of emphasis. That's what I want to try to do. … Just bearing down on opportunities, playing a more consistent game."