Simon Nemec Has Earned a Spot on the Devils’ Roster

Simon Nemec handles the puck for the Devils in preseason. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Simon Nemec handles the puck for the Devils in preseason. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New Jersey Devils wrapped up their 2023 preseason with a perfect 7-0 record, and impressively won their final game against the New York Islanders by a score of 3-0 with a roster largely occupied by minor leaguers.

Despite their excellent performances in the exhibition games, the Devils still find themselves seeking clarity on the back half of their blueline. Luke Hughes hasn’t really looked like himself since returning from a shoulder injury, while Brendan Smith and Colin Miller have flattered to deceive in their appearances.

Miller, who arrived in a July 1 trade with the Dallas Stars, has been a solid fifth or sixth defenseman for most of his career, but his preseason performances with the Devils have shown anything but. The 30-year-old has looked like a lost dog at times by failing to track loose pucks, not maintaining good gap control, and being unaware of his surroundings. It could be a tough adjustment to the Lindy Ruff system, but the early results haven’t been encouraging.

Miller definitely has a skillset, as he was the fastest skater and the hardest shooter in the 2015 AHL All-Star Skills Competition, which ironically took place in Utica. He might just need some time to gather his bearings, but with Simon Nemec breathing down his neck and just one year remaining on his current contract, that time might almost be up.

Nemec, like Hughes, Smith, and Miller, hasn’t been perfect, and he’s certainly shown the growing pains that come with his age and experience (or lack thereof). By and large, Miller is Nemec’s contingency plan in case the youngster isn’t ready. Despite the inconsistencies, the 2022 No. 2 overall pick has forced the issue with his enthralling play in the offensive zone.

The Devils will definitely regress defensively, as they are bound to replace the departed Ryan Graves and Damon Severson with a 20-year-old and a 19-year-old. The reality is this: New Jersey signed up for this when they spent two premium picks on Hughes and Nemec. The team’s goal is to field the best possible team in order to win the Stanley Cup; that doesn’t necessarily have to happen this year, as disappointing as that might be to hear.

On the same token, forking over fistfuls of ice time to two guys with almost no NHL experience isn’t as daunting as it seems. The obvious point of concern is how Hughes and Nemec will hold up in big minutes and when they’re pinned and need to defend carefully. The idea with this offensively-oriented Devils team is to avoid that as often as possible, and the skillset of Nemec and Hughes will help them quickly transport the puck to a safe place and avert catastrophe. The wherewithal to recognize that and actually do it, as we’ve observed with some of the other players and as we’ve heard Ken Daneyko say many times, is a completely different story and comes with maturity.

In addition, the Devils are not married to the idea of giving Nemec and Hughes 82 NHL games this year. Injuries will happen, bad plays will happen, and slumps will probably come along too. That’s where Smith and Miller come into play.

"“I should be a leader for this group.” Simon Nemec on wearing an ‘A’ in camp, via Amanda Stein"

The good news for Nemec is that based on merit, he’s more than earned the opportunity over Miller to be on that third pairing to start the year. The 19-year-old has an elite mentality; his goal was to make the Devils this year, he wants to be ‘the guy,’ and he wants to learn and continue to get better every day. New Jersey needs that.

Next. Smith Appears To Be Hughes’ Defense Partner. dark

As it goes with Ruff, it’s a wait-and-see game with Nemec, Miller, and Smith. Nemec has certainly earned his keep this preseason, but there are no guarantees with this coaching staff until the opening night roster is 100 percent confirmed.