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Matt Nieto’s breakout season has come at a perfect time for the Colorado Avalanche

Nieto is proving to be a valuable asset to the resurgent Avalanche

Columbus Blue Jackets v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Matt Nieto is in the middle of a breakout season for the Colorado Avalanche. The underlying numbers said it was coming, and now it’s here.

When the Avalanche picked Nieto up on waivers in the middle of last season, many who rely heavily on advanced statistics believed that Colorado was getting an undervalued asset. He played well for a bottom-6 winger after joining the Avs, but given the situation the team was in, it was hard to notice.

The Avs rewarded the 25-year old with a one year $1 million contract in the offseason. It was a low-risk move that gave the organization a season to evaluate the player while not being tied to him long-term. Now, heading into another summer as a restricted free agent, Nieto looks like the kind of young veteran that the team might want to lock up as part of the core going forward.

Despite his strong finish to last season, Nieto got off to a rough start this year. He was in and out of the lineup and just couldn’t seem to find any traction as a regular contributor to the team. That changed in early December.

It seems that the key to Nieto’s success has been finding comfortability and stability. After being bounced in and out of the lineup for the first part of the season, Nieto has found a home on the line with Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau. While the team has improved their play, this trio has become one that the coaching staff has relied upon heavily.

This checking line is being deployed in a defensive role on the vast majority of their shifts. Nieto, Soderberg, and Comeau are all hovering around 33% offensive-zone starts. That is by far the lowest on the team and proof that coach Bednar has decided that this is the line he trusts in all defensive situations.

Though he’s been playing in a defensive role, lately, Nieto has started pitching in offensively. He has always been a player that generates shots at a rate much higher than his goal totals would suggest. Now, he’s getting a little more puck luck.

With nine goals so far this season, he is one off of his career high - and he’s only played 37 games. Extrapolated over an 82 game season, that’s a 20-goal pace - not bad for a guy who plays 14 minutes a game and only gets 33.5% oZ starts.

He has been on fire since December 9th. Six of Nieto’s goals and 12 of his 17 points have come in Colorado’s last 17 games (of which they’ve won 14). He is more than living up to the $1 million contract the team gave him.

As an RFA, Nieto is arbitration eligible this offseason, but if I’m Joe Sakic, I don’t let it get that far. Going into an arbitration hearing, Nieto’s agent has a very good comparable in Connor Brown of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Matt Nieto vs Connor Brown

Player G/GP P/60 rel xGF% SH TOI oZS%
Player G/GP P/60 rel xGF% SH TOI oZS%
Connor Brown 0.255 1.54 -14.52 2:05 48.8%
Matt Nieto 0.250 1.94 -10.56 2:24 33.7%

Last summer, Brown signed a 3-year $6.3 million dollar contract. That seems steep for Nieto, but I’d guess Sakic could get him signed for less if the team shows good faith and extends him before arbitration.

We shouldn’t expect him to keep up the incredible pace we’ve seen over the past month, but it’s starting to look as though Matt Nieto has finally found his place in the NHL. More importantly, it’s starting to look like the Avalanche have found a young bottom-6 winger to play a key role in the team’s future.