UTICA SPOTLIGHT: NEMEC SETTLING IN
Although Simon Nemec initially made the Devils opening night roster for one day due to a salary cap technicality (stick tap to longtime commenters dr(d)evil and NJMetal15 for pointing this out) the fact remains: the second overall pick had a strong first camp in red and black. So how close is Nemec to becoming a full time Devil? Devils fans will have to wait a little bit longer as the 18-year-old RHD adjusts to the smaller ice surface of the AHL.
According to an interview Nemec did with Tomas Prokop of Sport.SK (I recommend translating the entire interview as it is a good read), Nemec claims to be comfortable with his skating on the smaller ice but still needs to improve his perception and to make plays quicker with less space. Given that hockey analysts such the Athletic’s Corey Pronman have highlighted Nemec’s “high-end brain” [MYNHLDRAFT.COM], the two-way defender is well-poised to make this adjustment. So how long should Devils fans expect Nemec’s transition to take? During the Devils prospect camp, Utica Comet’s GM Dan MacKinnon provided some insight as to the plan with Nemec to NHL.COM.
“We just feel with a young defenseman and unless they make an overwhelming case that they just are at the NHL level, that it’s in his best interest to adjust to North American ice and spend some time in Utica,” MacKinnon said. “No harm is going to come from that, so that’s certainly the plan right now. [NHL.COM]
WHY RINK SIZE MATTERS
In general, European hockey rinks have an additional 13 feet in width and 3 feet less in length compared to the NHL. [NovaCapsFans] This has a serious impact on the game as players need to react quicker and play more physically on the smaller ice. The difference is especially felt on the power play. In Europe, power plays typically develop slower with more cycling up top and methodical, strategic passing as defenders are less able to aggressively pursue the puck carrier around the wider perimeter.
From the same article, Utica GM Dan MacKinnon elaborated on these areas of Nemec’s game that still needed work.
“He gets back for pucks quick and knows what options A, B, and C, are. I think what Simon is referring to when describing areas he needs to improve is when you get down into the low heavy areas, being able to go body-on-body, separate and muscle guys, and understanding the smaller ice surface.” [NHL.COM]
As Nemec does not play “soft” the 18-year-old should have little trouble handling the increased physicality in the NHL. While the 2nd overall pick is far from a Daneyko-esque bruiser, Nemec does not shy away from contact. However, Nemec’s quickness in making plays must improve and catch up to the faster pace of North American hockey.
Jason Shaya of TheAHL.com highlighted how Nemec’s poise and maturity is aiding his transition to North American ice. Per Jason’s article, Utica coach Kevin Dineen seems pleased with Nemec’s progress thus far:
“I think he has maturity beyond his years for a young kid. He’s done a good job matriculating himself not only into the pro game but also his move into North America. He’s done a fine job.” Kevin Dineen [TheAHL.com]
In the same article, Nemec’s early season defensive partner (Nemec paired with Nikita Okhotiuk this past weekend), Tyler Wotherspoon, agreed:
“It’s been a learning process getting up to speed with the North American game style and when and where to make reads,” said Wotherspoon, “but I think he’s come along way even in his first 10 games.” [TheAHL.com]
NEMEC’S PRODUCTION THUS FAR
Simon Nemec has one goal and four assists in his first eleven games with the Comets. Three of those assists came in the past two games this weekend, so the 18-year-old is trending up. Though Nemec shot wide on this play, moves like this indicate that Nemec is gaining confidence and getting more comfortable showcasing his skill.
Here is a look at Nemec’s first AHL goal against the Cleveland Monsters on October 28, 2022.
Now that he’s got the first goal out of the way, Nemec needs to work on his speeches.
Simon Nemec content ❤️— Let's Go Devils Podcast (@LetsGoDevilsPOD) October 29, 2022
A CONCLUSION OF SORTS
While Nemec probably could fill a third pairing role in the NHL now if he had to be called upon, there is no reason to rush the 18-year-old defender. Fan musings in preseason seemed to believe that Nemec may get a taste in the NHL this year if there is an opportunity with a full role expected next season. While these expectations may be realistic, caution is warranted. Even for elite players, the development of young defensemen can be a painfully slow process. While it is entirely possible that Nemec will be a full time Devil next year or even by season’s end, don’t be surprised if the 18-year-old needs a little more seasoning first. Whenever he’s ready to make the transition, one thing is certain: Nemec is a special talent and will be worth the wait for Devils fans.
UTICA SEASON UPDATE
Without Akira Schmid or Nico Daws in net, this was an ugly weekend for the Comets. Utica dropped both games and now sits at the bottom of the North Division with a 3-5-1-1 record.
On Friday night, Utica was defeated 5-4 by the Laval Rockets. ECHL call-up Isaac Poulter earned the loss in his AHL debut. Andreas Johnsson, Zack Senyshyn and Samuel Laberge each scored their second goals of the season for the Comets, while Brian Pinho registered his team-leading seventh tally. Devils prospect Brian Halonen picked up his first two assists of the year. [TheAHL.com]
The woes continued for Utica Saturday night with the Syracuse Crunch absolutely obliterating the Comets 8-3. Isaac Poulter was in net again and surrendered all eight Syracuse goals. Offensively for Utica, Brian Halonen continued his hot play with two goals, both assisted by Simon Nemec. Nolan Foote scored the other goal for the Comets, his fifth of the season. [TheAHL.com]
After the graduation of Fabian Zetterlund and Alexander Holtz, there have been few bright spots amongst the Comets forward prospects to start the season. The biggest producer of the prospect group thus far has been Nolan Foote with 5 goals and 3 assists in 11 games. Foote also seems to be skating a little bit quicker in recent games. Here’s Foote’s fifth of the season against Syracuse on Saturday.
let’s just talk about that foote goal for a sec pic.twitter.com/WPX7LHPQ6f— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) November 13, 2022
Tyce Thompson has been steady again this season after putting up 15 points in 16 games last year for the Comets. Thompson currently has 5 points in Utica’s first 7 games, but did not play last weekend. With injuries derailing Thompson’s previous chances to make the transition to the NHL one wonders when the 23-year-old will stay healthy long enough to get another opportunity with the Devils. Here is a look at one of Thompson’s earlier season goals against the Toronto Marlies.
TYCE THOMPSON, HOW YOU DOIN’ pic.twitter.com/ajJGL2i5rz— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) October 30, 2022
After a very strong camp, many fans voiced their opinion that Graeme Clarke should have been on the Devils opening night roster. Thus far, Clarke’s preseason goal-scoring success has not carried over into this young season. The 21 year-old sniper has been brutally snakebitten to start the year finding twine only once on thirty shots. As Clarke is known for his strong and accurate shot, one would expect the pucks to start going in soon.
After a slow start, Brian Halonen heated up this weekend scoring four of his season’s five points in the last two games. The 23-year-old was a late bloomer for Michigan Tech and may be settling in to the professional game. It’s a small burst thus far, but if this scoring trend continues, Halonen will be one to keep an eye on going forward.
Aarne Talvitie has had a slow start with only two points (both assists) in his first ten games. The two-way Finnish center has struggled to produce in the AHL. Talvitie was once an exciting prospect after an offensive burst in his Freshman campaign for Penn State until a knee injury ended his season. Four years later and the 23 year-old has not yet been able to elevate his offensive game back to where it was before his knee surgery.
Thus far, Jack Dugan has tallied a respectable 5 points in his first 11 games playing mostly on Utica’s third line, but that’s still a big drop from the 33 points in 37 games he put up for the Henderson Silver Knights in his first year in the AHL two seasons ago. After scoring only 18 points in 35 games for the Silver Knights last year, I had high hopes for resurgence but thus far Dugan seems to be mired in a regression and time is running out for the 24 year-old to make the jump to the NHL.
For those interested in how the Utica veterans are doing, Andreas Johnsson is leading the Comets in Pt/G with 9 points in 6 games. Brian Pinho is the team’s overall leader in goals (7) and points (10). Mason Geertsen, who may end up suspended after leaving the bench to join an altercation in the game against Syracuse on Saturday, is still doing Mason Geertsen things.
Mason Geertsen just buried one in the net!!!!— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) November 6, 2022
A dude, not a puck. Off to the PK
On defense, Nikita Okhotiuk returned to action this weekend after suffering an upper body injury opening night and recorded an assist on Samuel Laberge’s 2nd of the year in his first period back against Laval on Friday. Okhotiuk was one of the last Devils cuts this preseason and is likely the first man up should the Devils need to recall a left-handed defender.
2nd overall pick Simon Nemec seems to be finding his game with three assists in his last two games. The spotlight of this week’s update, Nemec needs to learn to make plays quicker on the smaller ice surface before joining the Devils and that seems to be starting to happen for the 18-year-old. Two of Nemec’s three assists this weekend came on the power play.
With Nemec competing for power play time on the right side, Devils fans should expect a slight drop in Reilly Walsh’s production on the man advantage compared to last season. Thus far, Walsh is holding steady with a NHLe of 20 compared to 24 last year. A promising offensive defenseman in his own right, with Nemec on his tail, Walsh’s window to break into the NHL as a Devil is closing fast.
Michael Vukojevic and Jeremy Groleau are both pointless to start the season. There was some hope for Vukojevic after a strong rookie AHL campaign in 2020-21, but the physical defender seems stuck deep down in the depth chart.
Nico Daws has returned to the Comets after backing up Akira Schmid in the Devils 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night. Although the team results haven’t been there for Daws in Utica, he has put up a respectable 2.41 GAA and .908 SV% to start the season.
Akira Schmid was having a particularly strong start to the season with a 1.97 GAA and .918 SV% in his first four appearances for the Comets before getting called-up due to the injury to Mackenzie Blackwood. It’s a small sample size, but Schmid’s 1.97 GAA currently sits 4th in the entire AHL. Last season, Schmid’s 2.60 GAA was the 2nd lowest amongst AHL rookie goaltenders behind only highly-touted Calgary Flames prospect Dustin Wolf and 14th amongst all qualifying netminders. So far, Schmid seems to be building on last year’s AHL success and his first two wins in the NHL for the Devils should help to further grow the young netminder’s confidence.
AROUND THE POOL
- After a four-point weekend, Luke Hughes is the Big Ten star of the week for the third time in his young career. (More on him next week). [BigTen.org]
- Nikita Popugaev caught fire after my update last week, scoring three goals. Big Poppa now leads HC Sochi with 8 goals on the season and is second on the team with 11 points. [Hockey DB] HC Sochi sits at the basement of the Bobrov Division with a dismal 4-23 record and a -40 goal differential, so Devils fans should temper any excitement. That said, for fans of +/-, Popugaev leads HC Sochi with a +3, one of only two players on the team that are on the positive side of that stat. So, overall, Big Poppa’s return to hockey has been going as well as could be hoped.
- Guelph Storm Scout Pete Judge dropped this little nugget about the progress of our very own Shakir Mukhamadullin:
Mukhamadullin is tied for 5th in scoring on Salavat with 12 pts (most by any D) and has only been on the ice for 3 even strength goals against in 27 games https://t.co/JLGEmdwM1p— Pete Judge (@petejudge9) November 7, 2022
- Simon Nemec has earned the nickname “Nemo” from his Utica teammates. [Rome Sentinel] Because I have respect for our wonderful readers, I refrained from titling this article “Finding Nemo’s Game.” You’re welcome.
- For those who believe in hockey bloodlines, Simon Nemec’s little brother is putting up video game numbers in the Slovakian U18 league as a 14-year-old.
Adam Nemec, brother of New Jersey second overall pick Simon Nemec is crushing the Slovakian U18 league… as a 14 year old.— GermanSpitfire (@German_Spitfire) November 1, 2022
He leagues the league in scoring by 10 points with 45 points in only 16 games played.
He isn’t eligible until the #2026NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/vN4aSDN2mI
- Mason Gallina of the Hockey Writers has this update on Nolan Foote, Nikola Pasic and last week’s spotlight Zakhar Bardakov, amongst other Devils prospects. [The Hockey Writers]
- Peter Robinson of NHL.COM wrote this piece on Chase Stillman, who is out with the flu. Per the article, Stillman says he is “working on the things the Devils want from me.” [NHL.COM]
- Lastly, the Utica Comets have teamed up with Paws of War, a charity who retrains shelter dogs to service veterans in need. [TheAhl.com] On twitter, the Comets are promoting Lola, a service dog in training looking for a home. Stick throws and doggie treats for Lola and all other dogs looking for a family to call their own.
Last night we told the story of Lola with @PawsofWarUSA. She is a service dog in training looking to help a local veteran.— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) November 12, 2022
Submit your application for Lola here: https://t.co/JTmCB5EmoL pic.twitter.com/ZRFtgqv7zi
Dogs helped ease the pain of Utica’s 8-3 defeat this weekend. Dogs are good like that.
8-1.— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) November 13, 2022
Yes. Please send dog pictures. https://t.co/cg43wJI9Os
UTICA COMET PROSPECT OF THE MONTH
With Akira Schmid up with the big club, this month’s honors goes to Nolan Foote, who after a mediocre camp, has found his game with the Comets in this season’s early-goings. Development has been slow since Foote was brought over in the Blake Coleman trade at the 2020 deadline, but his recent offensive outburst shows why the Lightning drafted the power forward in the first round. At only 21 years-old, Foote still has a little time to develop and his progression has been encouraging so far this season.
What do you think of Simon Nemec’s adjustment? Will he be ready for the NHL next season? How about the Utica Comets lackluster start? What do you think of Nolan Foote’s progression? Let us know in the comments below.
Lastly, as I dedicated my first article to my late mother, I want to make one last dedication and dedicate this second article to my dad, who will probably be very surprised to read this. My dad never gets enough credit. Thanks for everything, dad.
Next week: An update on the Devils NCAA prospects with a spotlight on Luke Hughes, who recently scored his 50th point in his 52nd game for the University of Michigan. I’ll be comparing his numbers to some other big name NCAA defensive stars in recent years. The teaser: Luke Hughes compares very, very well.