New Jersey Devils: Simon Nemec Makes Best Case To Get Called Up

Simon Nemec #17 of New Jersey Devils skates against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena on October 06, 2023 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Simon Nemec #17 of New Jersey Devils skates against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena on October 06, 2023 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New Jersey Devils are trying to figure out the defense. It’s been a mess, with Brendan Smith continuing to play on his offhand to pair with Luke Hughes. With Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier out of the lineup, the yearlong defensive issues are more glaring than ever. The Devils are trying to find a solution. It could come in a trade, but they have a very talented defenseman who’s making his best case to jump into the NHL now.

Simon Nemec had himself a night on Saturday. He finished the dominant performance against the Rochester Americans with one goal and three assists. This despite him being listed as the seventh defenseman coming into the game.

Many were questioning Nemec’s role and why he was listed that way, but the Utica Comets have always listed their lines strangely. Tyce Thompson, who almost made the Devils out of training camp, is often listed on the fourth line. Alex Holtz was listed all over the lineup. So, it’s not a surprise that where Nemec was listed was not where he was actually utilized.

The Americans were shorthanded on Saturday night, but this is exactly what the Devils want to see from their former second-overall pick when facing lesser competition. The Comets have struggled this season, so when they have the advantage, they need to dominate. That’s what they did in their 6-0 victory.

Nemec showed his immense skill, which is hard to say wouldn’t translate to the NHL. He was already really good in the NHL during the preseason, but the regular season is a different beast.

The issue with using Nemec as the answer to the Devils problems is he doesn’t actually answer those problems. The Devils are allowing 3.66 goals against per 60 minutes, which is in the bottom three in the league. They are allowing too many goals against. While some of it is on the goalies, the defense is the real culprit.

Even if the goalies should be doing better (and they should be), the defense last season was great at keeping high-danger chances away from Vitek Vanecek and whoever was the backup (whether that was Mackenzie Blackwood or Akira Schmid). This season, they’re pretty much in the middle of the pack. Also, not all high-danger chances are treated the same. A breakaway or a 2-on-1 chance is not the same as a shot up close. The algorithms can’t tell the difference.

Anyone with eyes knows the Devils give up too many odd-man rushes. Since Hughes went out and the play inside the offensive zone has been a little more desperate, the mistakes have grown. Adding Nemec won’t lessen those mistakes. The rookie will only make more of them.

Still, his talent is hard to deny, and he could help the Devils keep the puck in the offensive zone or learn to get it out of it. The issue really is the penalty kill. If you add Nemec to the lineup, your penalty killers become John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, and Dougie Hamilton. While it gives the Devils a chance to keep the original pairs together, Hamilton is not what most want to see on the PK.

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Also, the pairings would have to change anyway. Hamilton and Siegenthaler would stay together theoretically, but the Devils don’t want to pair Luke Hughes with Simon Nemec. So, Hughes would pair with Marino while Bahl and Nemec pair together. And let’s be realistic, this would mean the Devils are playing with seven defensemen. Brendan Smith would be in this lineup, at least at first. At least that would solve the PK problem, but it means that Alex Holtz probably has to sit, and that’s one of the few players not injured that has been scoring.

It was a great night for Nemec, but at the end of the day, the Devils are probably staying status quo on defense for now. Lindy Ruff has been stubborn about that unit so far this season, but when it is time to call someone up, it’s hard to choose anyone else besides Nemec at this point.