Healthy Scratching Simon Nemec is a Worrisome Sign for New Devils Leadership

Simon Nemec's absence from the lineup against the Florida Panthers is a sign that the New Jersey Devils front office and coaching staff are still not on the same page
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New Jersey Devils interim head coach Travis Green raised some eyebrows following his first morning skate leading the team when he discussed the decision to scratch Simon Nemec for Tuesday’s matchup with the NHL-leading Florida Panthers. Simon Nemec is not hurt, mind you, but a healthy scratch for the New Jersey Devils tonight, for the first time in his NHL career. Green explained the decision in great detail to the media after the morning skate.

The most relevant part of this quote for Devils fans is his discussion with Nemec.

"“I had a great meeting with (Nemec) today . . . I walked to him this morning and said I think your game has dipped in the last three weeks. . . . He just doesn’t have that pop that he had when he first came up and the season is a grind.”"

Travis Green, Devils Interim Head Coach

Let’s take Green at his word and investigate whether Simon Nemec’s game has dipped over the last three weeks. While we’re at it, let’s also look at the past three weeks of two other defensemen who will face the Panthers tonight in Nemec’s place, Luke Hughes and Brendan Smith. All of the data used comes from Natural Stat Trick.

A little over three weeks ago, the Devils began a back-to-back against the Kraken and Predators. Let’s use that as our starting point. In 11 games since then, the Devils have had 11 expected goals with Simon Nemec on the ice at 5-on-5, to just 6.7 expected goals against, for a xGoals For percentage of 61.9%. Nemec’s scoring chances are positive as well, 86 for to 77 against, meaning the Devils have 52.7% of the scoring chances while Nemec is on the ice.

Luke Hughes, another rookie many believe may be hitting the rookie wall, has been categorically worse than Simon Nemec over the past three weeks. In those same 11 games, the Devils have 9.8 expected goals for to 9.45 expected goals against with Luke Hughes on the ice at 5v5. That's just 50.9% goals for. The Devils have had 101 scoring chances with Hughes on, to just 92 for their opponents, for a slightly worse than Nemec 52.3% of the scoring chances.

Brendan Smith returned from his injury on the 13th and was scratched against the Kings on Sunday, so his sample is only nine games. But he’s been dramatically worse than both rookie defensemen. At 5v5, he has been on the ice for just 4.33 expected goals for the Devils, versus 5.83 expected goals for their opponents, or a 42.6% goals for. His scoring chance percentage is even worse, with the Devils accruing just 38% of the scoring chances with him on the ice.

Smith supposedly draws into the lineup because of his penalty-killing acumen, but he takes minor penalties at the 16th highest pace in the league of players with a minimum of 200 minutes of ice time this year (1.69/60 min), meaning he’s in the box nearly as often as he is on the penalty kill.  

Tom Fitzgerald was quoted at his own press conference as saying, “(Accountability) isn’t always taking a kid and sitting his (butt) on the bench.”

Sometimes, accountability is letting young players work through actual or perceived struggles at the NHL level while coaching them after games about how they can improve. Occasionally, accountability is taking a veteran and sitting him in the press box when he’s hurting the team. 

It is hard to square what Green said about Nemec’s play justifying a healthy scratch with Fitzgerald’s comments. It’s a sign that the Devils front office and coaching staff are still not on the same page as to what needs to be done to right the ship; and if that's true, the ship isn't just sitting on its side, it's sinking like the Titanic.