Note: Nikita Okhotyuk was called up right after I finished writing this, which is a good move, but the avenue for Nemec to still get called up in January is there, so let’s see what happens.
Earlier this week, both John Marino and Ryan Graves went down to injuries for the New Jersey Devils, Marino against Carolina and Graves against Florida the second time around. It led to some massive minutes for the other defenders in that Florida game. Damon Severson played over 28 minutes that night in all situations, while Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler both got over 24 minutes themselves. Kevin Bahl drew in and played over 16 minutes, but it is possible that the team will need more bodies up with the big club to fill in the gaps until everyone is fully healthy. (Note: I wrote this before the game last night, so this is assuming that at least one is still injured. If not, well, even still, let’s ponder it)
That could provide an opening for Simon Nemec to get his first taste of NHL action. You could easily argue that he should stay in Utica, and someone like Nikita Okhokiuk should get the call up instead. After all, Okhotyuk was a second round pick not too long ago and has more seasoning at this point. Considering it usually takes defenders longer to develop than forwards, it would seem to make more sense to go that route. However, when we are discussing top 3 picks in the NHL, lottery pick winners, oftentimes expectations and timelines get moved up. First overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky has been playing with the big club, with 10 points through 28 games. Last year’s first overall pick Owen Power only played 8 games with Buffalo last year, but he has been a regular this year with 29 games with the big club. So it would not be entirely unreasonable to give Nemec some NHL action to see how he responds, even if you want to keep his games played below 10 to not burn a year of the ELC.
So far this year, through 24 games in Utica, Nemec has 11 points, 3 goals and 8 assists. However, the timing might also be off, as he could not join the club right away. Currently, he is going to be playing for Slovakia in the World Junior Championships, so even if New Jersey wanted to bring him up, they would need to wait a couple of weeks before doing so, so it also depends partly on how injured the Devils defenders are currently. Plus, you really would like him to get that experience playing in the World Juniors, it is a great place for him to play against the world’s best around his age. So in the short term, Kevin Bahl will remain, and someone like Okhotyuk could come up, but in the long term, if one or both of these defenders, or someone else for that matter, needs time to recover from an injury, Nemec is out there. The World Juniors conclude on January 5th, so Nemec could get called up soon after that point if needed.
And honestly, even if both Graves and Marino come back before then, it would not be worthless to see him called up anyway, considering the heat that Damon Severson has taken lately with his mistakes and the fact that Brendan Smith sees relatively low minutes anyway when everyone is healthy. He did get 23 minutes against Florida on Wednesday, but that was with a shortened bench thanks to Graves getting hurt early, and it was the second fewest minutes of the remaining defensemen, with only Kevin Bahl getting fewer minutes. The night before in Carolina he only had 17 minutes, and that was with Marino getting hurt as well, so he still was not really leaned on in that game despite only 11 minutes from Marino. So, giving Nemec a try to see what he could do in early January, even if Marino and Graves are 100% good by that point, is still not unreasonable, even if it becomes a lot less likely.
With the win against Florida Wednesday, the Devils seemed to stave off needing some major changes to shake things up and get back on the right track, and hopefully, the positive momentum can build up upon the return from the Christmas break. But Nemec would be another way to spice things up and get the team moving in a positive direction should the Devils continue to struggle into early January. He could be someone that gives the lineup a spark, especially since he has some offensive capabilities, unlike someone like Smith. That could be a catalyst to get back to winning.
In the end, it will be interesting to see what happens here with both Marino and Graves sporting injuries. Maybe it is nothing, and they both are fine coming back from the break. Or, maybe the team needs to add another body to eat up minutes. And if that lasts past January 5th, then there is a chance we could see Nemec in a Devils uniform, at least for a few games anyway.