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Top 25 Under 25 #14: Matt Nieto is looking for a breakout season

Solid Bottom Six Forward Returns to Avs for 2017-2018

NHL: Washington Capitals at Colorado Avalanche
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Nieto is a 24 year old forward, returning to the Avs this season on a cheap one-year contract. He was originally drafted in 2011 by San Jose, a point-per-game player out of Boston University good for a second round pick. That success rate as a scorer hasn’t translated into his NHL career; with 28 goals and 42 assists over three and a half seasons in San Jose, he was waived this last January and picked up by the Avalanche. At the time, Nieto was suffering from a cold offensive streak, with just 2 assists in 16 games over the course of the season (including some nacho duty). In the 43 games for Colorado that followed, Nieto scored 7 goals and picked up 4 assists. Despite his cold offense, the Avs claimed Nieto to provide some solid depth on a poorly performing PK unit that finished 29th in the league in killed penalty percentage last season.

This season, Nieto will fill a similar bottom six role for the Avs. Much of what he brings to the team is shown on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone, suppressing shots and cleaning up rebounds; he will also occasionally find the net. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nieto plays up to his ceiling this season, as he is in a contract year and is coming in eager to prove his worth moving forward. Realistically, Nieto slots in on the 4th line and on the penalty kill. He’s not an incredibly flashy player, but he’s one of those guys who is trusted in the defensive zone. If he scores ten goals, puts up a few assists, brings a high Corsi% and stands out on the PK unit, that would be a solid season for Nieto.

Though he isn’t known as an extraordinary player on the offensive side, something I really like about Nieto is his ability to crash the net. He doesn’t always lead the charge on the breakout; when he does score, he’s typically the second or third man crossing the blue line. He tends to follow the play after forcing a turnover in the neutral zone or making a breakout pass from his own zone. His first NHL goal was of this variety:

As was this goal after forcing a turnover in the neutral zone:

Interestingly, he can also turn on the jets and doesn’t have a bad shot:

Also seen here busting down short-handed:

Nieto was all over the board in the staff rankings, everywhere from remaining unranked to as high as 6th. I was higher on him for his defensive abilities and offensive upside, but there’s an argument to be made that this all around potential may have worn off now that Nieto has a couple of seasons under his belt. We know we’re getting solid defensive play from Nieto this season, I don’t think it’s unfair to have that expectation based on previous seasons’ play. I really like the offensive upside he brings to his game, even if it’s still in that realm of imaginary awesomeness that hasn’t translated into his NHL career yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a breakout season for the kid.