Former U.S. National Team Development Program coach Kurt Kleinendorst tells it how it is.
For the duration of a recent half-hour phone call, he backs up that statement by picking apart some of his former star pupils in Ann Arbor. He paints a collection of crystal clear portraits for the NHL draft prospects, never hiding the warts when they are worth mentioning. But when he starts speaking of lightning-quick winger Matt Nieto, his tone changes slightly.
The cool analysis cracks, just a little, and in creeps an unmistakable inflection of awe.
"Matt is an absolutely beautiful player," he waxes. "He's a thoroughbred. He's strong as an ox. He's got toughness. His skating and puck skills are never going to be an issue."
In short, Nieto is a natural.
Nieto kept his head down and did his best to avoid the fights that plagued his schools, spending his free time indulging a passion he picked up at age 3.
"I just tried to stay focused on my goals and overcome all that and focus on hockey," Nieto says.
Rick Stewart /Allsport Watching Gretzky as a King inspired Matt Nieto.
He learned the game on in-line skates at the same local YMCA as future USNTDP teammate Rocco Grimaldi. Won over by the wizardry of Wayne Gretzky with the Los Angeles Kings -- Nieto's favorite team -- he stuck with the game and, at 14, left home to enroll at Connecticut's Salisbury School. Two years later he made the cut at Ann Arbor and made an instant impression on Kleinendorst when the coach took over before the 2010 season.
"My first practice I saw Matt and his skating was just so effortless. He was very strong on the puck," says Kleinendorst, still sounding slightly awestruck.
But even as the coach rattles off the compliments, Kleinendorst catches himself, as though he suddenly remembered the lone flaw in one of the U.S. program's brightest gems.
"He's an absolutely special player, but he's got to be more determined."
After two years in a starring role on two different U.S. U-18 world championship teams, Nieto has teased talent evaluators with a world-class skill set -- the problem is work ethic.
"I don't think we got everything out of him that we could have," Nieto's former coach says. "And I know they didn't get everything from him at Lake Placid."
In the latter instance, Nieto failed to make the cut at this summer's USA Hockey's evaluation camp for its World Junior Championship team. It's hardly a black mark for an 18-year-old to miss a roster with a cutoff age of 20, but the performance may have been disappointing given that Team USA kept two of his former U-18 teammates, Brandon Saad and Adam Clendening.
To be fair, Nieto hadn't skated at game speed since April 3's U-18 gold-medal game against Sweden, and when interviewed at the camp he admitted his legs felt a little heavy after the first day. But later this summer, while fellow top prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was wowing scouts at the scoring-friendly NHL Research and Development Orientation camp, Nieto did little to excite an arena jam packed league GMs. Suddenly Kleinendorst's caveat is becoming slightly more worrisome, as talent evaluators have seen it often enough to knock Nieto's draft stock.
"You want to see a little more production with all the skills he has," one Eastern Conference scout says. "He needs to have more consistency."
If he ever finds it, however, Nieto could reach some lofty heights. Even when, as Kleinendorst says, the USNTDP didn't always get his A-1 effort, Nieto still potted 10 goals during the U-18 gold medal run (tied for the team-high) and produced at a point-per-game pace (54 points in 54 games) during the regular season.
He should have ample opportunity to polish his one blemish when he suits up for Boston University this season. The Terriers' roster has been depleted by graduation and players departing to the pros and Nieto could see plenty of ice time.
"If he does show consistency this season, he could surge," the scout says. "Kevin Hayes (picked 24th in 2010) and James van Riemsdyk (picked second in 2007) had good pre-draft years and jumped up the board."
Mike Hume is a writer and editor for Insider focusing mostly on hockey and college basketball.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider