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San Jose Sharks coach Bob Boughner was asked how the so-called third line of Noah Gregor, Ryan Donato and Matt Nieto looked in Friday night’s intra-squad scrimmage.
“They looked like our first line tonight,” Boughner said. “They look like they’ve got a little chemistry out there. The one thing that separates them out there right now is the speed.”
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The Sharks came into training camp looking for another winger to play in their top six forward group. Donato started camp alongside Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane, but was later replaced by John Leonard, who has received positive reviews in that role so far.
But they also needed to revamp a third line that was now without Joe Thornton, who signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in October. Perhaps the Sharks couldn’t completely replace everything Thornton did for the team off the ice, but they needed to find someone who could best duplicate his offensive production.
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So far in camp, Gregor, who showed flashes of his offensive capability in his first year as a pro last season, has earned kudos for his work so far as a centerman. Donato seems to have found a home and Nieto has burnished his reputation as a speedy and versatile winger.
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The trio combined for two goals and two assists for Team Teal in their 5-3 win over Team White on Friday. The Sharks have their final scrimmage of training camp Sunday night.
“We’ve been together now for a couple of skates, and then the game today, I thought we played pretty solid,” Gregor said. “I definitely can bring some speed and then both guys, Nieto and Donato, have the ability to make plays. It was pretty fun out there tonight.”
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Things could change, but it seems to be a safe bet at this point that the three will be together for the Sharks’ season-opener on Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes. Regardless, Boughner feels the depth of his forward group will be faster than it was a year ago.
“They seem to be working together,” Boughner said of the trio. “Pucks are coming underneath with speed, and then they get into the offensive zone and they’re tough to stop because they’re cutting back and protecting pucks and doing everything at top speed.
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The Sharks have also placed six players on waivers, likely for purposes of reassignment to the Barracuda or taxi squad. Forwards Kurtis Gabriel and Antti Suomela, as well as defenders Nicolas Meloche, Nick DeSimone, Trevor Carrick and Fredrik Claesson, should they clear waivers, are not likely to make the opening night rosters.
Claesson is the notable inclusion, as he signed with the Sharks only yesterday, though he was clearly a depth signing.
Opening Night rosters are due by tomorrow at 5 p.m. Eastern. Here’s where the Sharks’ roster stands, should all waived players be re-assigned:
2021 Sharks Roster
“That’s a big advantage for us if we can get the third line being able to play against any line out there, but especially being able to produce offense.”
Nieto had something of a career rebirth in his three-plus seasons with the Avalanche.
Nieto was playing only occasionally for then-coach Pete DeBoer in the first half of the 2016-17 season, and was placed on waivers in January 2017 by the Sharks and given a chance to get a fresh start elsewhere. He was claimed by the Avalanche, then the worst team in the NHL by a wide margin.
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Nieto had 15 goals and 26 points in 74 games in 2017-18 for the Avs, who went from 48 to 95 points in one year’s time and made the playoffs. Nieto remained a constant in Colorado’s lineup for the next two seasons as well.
“I think I just matured a lot as a player.” Nieto said. “When I was in Colorado, I found a role that I was successful at over the last number of years. Coming back here, I’m excited to be back around some of the guys that I played with and be back in San Jose and show the player that I am now.”
What Hertl has seen is a guy that’s added some muscle.
“His upper body’s huge,” Hertl said of Nieto. “I think he was working really hard to get it
“But he’s always had speed. Even before he went to Colorado, I actually liked to play with (Nieto) because he’s really fast and he’s good on the forecheck, but he can still make a play.”
NEW GROUPS TODAY: The Sharks shuffled up their practice groups Saturday, moving most of their NHL roster into one 20-player unit.
One notable in the top group was defenseman Nikolai Knyzhov, who, it appears, will be paired with Jake Middleton for Saturday’s practice at least. Notables in the second group were defensemen Radim Simek, Ryan Merkley and Brinson Pasichnuk and forwards Dylan Gambrell, Stefan Noesen, Antti Suomela and Fredrik Handemark.
Boughner said Simek skated Saturday for about 30 minutes, and that the team will decide at a later point whether he’ll scrimmage Sunday. Simek had missed two days of practice and Friday’s scrimmage with knee discomfort.
“I’d like to keep easing him in and getting him ready for Thursday night,” Boughner said, “so it was good to see him back on the ice.”
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Boughner said earlier this week that he wanted his NHL players to all be practicing together soon, but Saturday’s groupings may not necessarily mean that everything has been decided. Simek, Noesen and Gambrell will also be with the big club barring something completely unforeseen.
“I think (the competitions) are becoming a little more clear,” Boughner said after Friday’s scrimmage. “We’re keying on a few different guys at certain positions and certain holes. Certain guys are going the right way and then there’s certain other guys that just may not be ready at this point in time, and that’s fine too. But it’s becoming more clear.”