New Jersey Devils: Simon Nemec's Makes Immediate Impact In NHL

The New Jersey Devils found themselves in a tough spot when Dougie Hamilton went down with a pectoral injury. Simon Nemec's callup has been better than we could have expected.
Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils
Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

In the wake of Dougie Hamilton's unfortunate injury and requisite surgery, a sudden panic rose over Devils fans. How do you replace the value of what Hamilton brings to the New Jersey Devils? A torn pectoral can have varied timetables associated with it, but it was clear the Devils needed someone to step in.

While this recent success for the Devils has coincided with Hamilton's absence, it shouldn’t take away how good Dougie has been. When looking at defensemen who have played at least 200 minutes this year, Hamilton ranks 8th in CF% and 14th in xGF%. Despite the occasional defensive lapses or apparent lack of effort, Dougie remains one of the league's premier defensemen, capable of controlling possession and pushing the puck up north. So when a guy like that gets injured, it's a pretty big deal.

Dougie Hamilton
Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils / Elsa/GettyImages

Enter Simon Nemec. When Tom Fitzgerald and the rest of the Devils' front office picked Nemec 2nd overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, it was quite the shock. Not many expected the Devils to take a defenseman and among the two available (Nemec and David Jiricek), Jiricek seemed like more the "NHL-Ready" pick. In hindsight, Nemec was a very good pick and has developed adequately in the AHL over the past year. He put up 34 points in 65 games as an 18/19-year-old in his first year in North American hockey. Of those 34 points, more than half came at even strength, which, among D+1 defensemen, is some of the best production in AHL history.

But the fear with Nemec was not the production but rather how his playstyle might change in the North American game. In his draft year playing in the Slovak league, Nemec showed incredible transitional ability, being able to glide past players and take a good amount of risk in the way he played, particularly in the Defensive and Neutral Zones. While the good transtional play continued in Utica, so did the bad habits defensively. Specifically, Nemec played very conservatively, but not in the way one would expect. He would have large gaps, allowing opposing rushers easy zone entries, and on the cycle, he just didn't look like a player who wanted the puck back. He could be seen just skating behind the net aimlessly, hoping that the puck would find him. Sometimes, defending is really just the art of controlling one's aggression. But if you lack aggression, how can you be effective defensively?

However, much of this can be chalked up to two things: a brand-new playing environment and a lack of care while playing in a lower league. While this does sound like a knock on Nemec, it's more a look into his mentality. He's an extremely confident player, and that drives his play. It's when he cares that he can be exceptional defensively. And this is something that we are seeing now in the NHL. In big games against big-time opponents, like the Bruins this past week, the best comes out of Nemec. See below:

These are important plays at important times against important players like Brad Marchand. And it is these kinds of plays that made Nemec a top-two pick in the Draft.

Nemec's game now relies a lot on his ability to beat his opponent to the puck and make simple offensive plays. He still shows some of the same sorts of things as he did in Utica, but he just seems to care a bit more about the puck and what he does with it. Whether it is nifty plays in the neutral zone for a dump in or making a "simple" reverse pass along the boards, everything has more gravity on it, and it is improving Nemec's play.

Through six games, Nemec is boasting a 56% CF and 52% xGF. For a player who was thought to maybe still be a year away, who is currently 19 years of age, and who is now playing in Dougie's exact spot in the lineup, those are not bad numbers. And throughout the course of the year, expect those numbers to improve.

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