Per multiple sources, the Sharks have re-assigned forward Matt Nieto to the AHL. It's a move that isn't entirely surprising given that Nieto watched San Jose's victories over Tampa Bay and New Jersey this past week from the press box as a healthy scratch and, before that, was bumped down from the third line to the fourth against Edmonton and Chicago. But prior to missing games on October 27th and 30th with a hand injury, the 21-year-old was one of the Sharks' most effective forwards and provided the type of speed and scoring pop this team hasn't received from a third-line winger on a consistent basis in a long time.
Before his line with Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels was dismantled partway through a loss to the Buffalo Sabres on November 5th, Nieto compiled two goals, three assists and 27 shots on goal in a little under 135 minutes of even-strength ice time. That's an average of 12.0 shots and 2.22 points per 60 minutes at evens, both of which would be numbers worthy of an established first-liner if sustained over a full season. But neither proved sustainable, seemingly in large part due to the reconfigured line combinations preventing Nieto from playing his game, which revolves around attacking the offensive blueline with speed in the hopes of catching opposing defenders flat-footed. Marty Havlat's presence on Pavelski's right wing in lieu of Wingels seemed to shift that line's focus to a more methodical style of play which never really panned out for any of its three members. Nieto's shot rate tanked (although he's still top 50 league-wide in that category), his scoring dried up with it and, soon enough, he found himself out of the lineup all together.
Still, Nieto has proven he can be a very useful piece of the puzzle when deployed in the right circumstances (i.e., alongside two players in Pavelski and Wingels who seem to complement him perfectly). Even taking into account his ineffective games on the reconstructed third line and fourth line, the Sharks have controlled 56.1% of all shot attempts with Nieto on the ice five-on-five this season; only the members of the Tom, Dick & Hairy Line and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have had better results. Granted, Nieto has understandably been given sheltered minutes by the coaching staff which might skew his numbers, underlying or otherwise, somewhat. But it's hard to make any sort of argument that John McCarthy or Mike Brown deserves to play over the kid. Even Tyler Kennedy has done less with more (Pavelski and Wingels are great, but they're no Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture) than Nieto this season. A valid counterargument would be that Nieto is better off getting upwards of 18 minutes a night in Worcester than he is barely playing on San Jose's fourth line. And that's probably true but I'm not entirely sold that Nieto even deserves to be bumped to the Sharks' fourth line. Ideally, the Nieto/Pavelski/Wingels line should be reunited, Havlat should be back with the only two players he's had success alongside during his San Jose career in Marleau and Couture and Kennedy, a terrific third-liner, could give other teams matchup nightmares by slotting in on the fourth line.
The Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup in part thanks to their incredible forward depth allowing the likes of Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland, the latter two of whom combined to score the Cup-winning goal, to suit up as fourth-liners. With Nieto potentially bumping Kennedy out of the top nine, the Sharks had a chance to ice a comparable fourth line to Chicago's, particularly when Raffi Torres returns from injury. Instead, it looks like they prefer getting Mike Brown seven minutes a night. Hopefully Nieto gets plenty of opportunity to develop his game even further in Worcester (you never know with Roy Sommer at the helm) and makes his way back to the big club at some point in the season. Even if he doesn't, at least the Sharks were able to catch a glimpse of what he can be expected to provide at the NHL level going forward. It's a shame they aren't interested in giving him a longer look.