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Simon Nemec: Let Him Ride or Let His Contract Slide?

One of the decisions the New Jersey Devils will make in preseason is what to do with defenseman Simon Nemec. He is on an entry level contract and so he can play for New Jersey. Would it be better for him to play in Utica and let his ELC slide? This post discusses that decision in detail.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Simon Nemec will go pro in North America. In NJ or in Utica or, perhaps, both?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils drafted defenseman Simon Nemec at second overall in the 2022 NHL Draft back in July 2022. Nemec was drafted out of HK Nitra of the Slovakian hockey league - his second full season with the professional team and third in total. Nemec has also been a regular for Slovakia both at the youth and senior level. In this past season, he played for their U-18 team at the World U-18 Championships and the main men’s team in Olympic Qualifiers, the Olympics, and the World Championships. The Devils signed him to an entry level contract shortly after selecting him. Nemec is with the Devils now and played in his first preseason game against the Islanders on Tuesday. The question will be answered soon: Will Nemec play for the Devils or will he play for the Utica Comets?

At first glance, the answer is simple: The Comets. Nemec just played his first set of exhibition games in North America. While he has vast international experience compared to most 18-year old players, playing pro hockey in North America is still going to take an adjustment. Not just with a different rink size, but also with the pace of play and the level of talent. With all due respect to the Slovakian league, I would think the AHL and NHL are stronger leagues in terms of quality and talent. It takes time for any player coming into this environment to get used to it. Perhaps more of one as Nemec is a defenseman and his responsibilities will be in all three zones.

In Nemec’s defense, his few performances in exhibition games are encouraging. He is quick enough on his skates and with his hands to react to the pace of play, even in a slower preseason pace. Nemec was not bullied or bodied up to a point of harming his game. Nemec was given 20 minutes against a part-New York, part-Bridgeport roster on Tuesday night and generally played decently. He was not perfect; he was beaten on the way to the one goal the Isles did score that night. Nemec was also one of the few Devils to be out-attempted and out-shot in 5-on-5 in that game. But he was not committing massive amounts of turnovers, getting repeatedly caught out of position, or making fouls to make up for being beaten. There was nothing on Tuesday night or in the Prospects Challenge that made it look like he was overwhelmed. He is a young defenseman with good hands and good vision on the puck and performed like one in his first game against some actual NHL players and AHL vets. Again, it takes time for a player to get used to this higher level of hockey and that’s what I saw from Nemec’s performances so far.

It also takes development. This is something Lindy Ruff pointed out prior to Tuesday’s game, as Mike Morreale reported:

The reactions to this quote range from the understanding to the unhinged (e.g. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic ($) and here by Wheeler and here again by Wheeler). There is plenty to criticize Lindy Ruff for, but this is not it. I actually agree with Ruff here. It is common for players, especially young players, who excelled at one level to play in a tougher league and find out the hard way that how they excelled may not work so well. Given the nature of the defenseman position, finding out the hard way can often punish the team.

Ruff’s point about thinking too much is an particularly apt one. I think it was a root cause of of Ty Smith’s struggles last season, where it appeared, to me at least, that he was too focused on making the right play that he ended up missing otherwise good plays and therefore making a mistake. On defense and hockey in general, one needs to be comfortable with one’s instincts, refining them to make reads and reactions as quick as possible, and be comfortable with problem solving if and when the play does not go as anticipated. This makes the difference between a talented defenseman who is effective on the ice and a defenseman who has the capability of being effective but does not do so.

To interpret this as Ruff trying to make Nemec more ordinary or less special is just plain stupid. No NHL team is going to let any player do as they wish and Nemec, as great as he could be one day, is not good enough to just let him take the ice and play as he wants. I get that Ruff is seen as an old boy stuck in a past. But the message of a young defenseman coming into North American pro hockey needing to learn how the team plays and realize he does not need to do everything to be effective is a perfectly reasonable point for pretty much every prospective player. It is by no means trying to sand down a square peg’s corners to fit into a round hole. It would be one thing if Ruff told and played Nemec to just stay in his own zone and go D-to-D on passes. But that is not happening. It is a comment about development, not degrading the player. And that’s the kind of development Nemec can focus on in Utica.

From the Devils perspective, it is advantageous for Nemec to play in Utica. For one, should Nemec struggle in adjusting to the full game speed of the regular season, then the slower pace of the AHL would help. It would also not cause any impact to the Devils’ own record as, again, mistakes for a defensemen can end up being costly for the team. For another, there’s the matter of Nemec’s entry level contract. All ELCs signed at the age of 18 can slide for up to two seasons provided that the player does not play more than 9 season games in the NHL or any playoff games in the NHL. The contract sliding means that it continues on for another season, effectively turning a three-season deal into a four-season deal. Or five if Nemec is not quite ready at age 19 for 2023-24. That kind of control for a relatively cheap deal is valuable for any team. It is especially valuable for a team that has already committed large sums of money and cap space to Dougie Hamilton, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Ondrej Palat, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Vitek Vanecek through 2024-25 in addition to adding John Marino’s contract this past summer. With new deals needed for Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer, the Devils are at a point where they will need get the most out of players on ELCs and relatively cheaper second contracts. Keeping Nemec in Utica even just for this season will help attain that objective.

In my view, the right move is to keep Nemec in Utica such that the contract slides for this season as he develops his game in this environment and prepares for a future. Why even have a headline that suggests the Devils could do otherwise? Because I want to argue the possibility that Simon Nemec could play upwards of 10 games in this coming season. It is a real possibility. Here are some ways I can see it happening:

  • Injuries. You know them. You hate them. They are near-impossible to predict. The Devils organization can play fast and loose with passing on the news that someone is hurt (e.g. Miles Wood being taken off for maintenance reasons in the preseason turned into hip surgery somehow). Even if they were more upfront, it does not change the reality that injuries can happen at any given moment. While the New Jersey blueline may not need Nemec because they have Hamilton, Marino, and Damon Severson, an injury to one of them may mean they do. The right-handed shooting options from Utica would be Nemec, Reilly Walsh, or Robbie Russo. Russo is a 29-year old AHL vet who played 19 games for Detroit in the 2016-17 season. Walsh has been in the system for a while and had a strong 2021-22 season; but his performances in the Prospect Challenge and preseason early on have been inconsistent. Should Nemec perform well in Utica right away, then I could see him get an early call-up even ahead of Walsh. And should the injury be significant enough to last 3 weeks, those nine games he can play without the ELC sliding are going to go fast.
  • Trades. Severson is going to be in some kind of demand by NHL Trade Deadline on March 3, 2023. He is a pending unrestricted free agent as he is in the last season of his current contract. It is entirely possible he is moved before or on March 3. Or, to put it another way, with at least 21 games left in the season. (Aside: The Devils play in Las Vegas on March 3, by the way.) If that happens, Nemec may be the one to be called up to replace Severson. Again, there will be ample time left in the season for the slide rule to be overtaken by games played.
  • Call-up Performances. Let’s say the Devils call up Nemec with the intention of playing him no more than nine games. That is entirely possible that is the plan if he is needed to fill the blueline and/or if he shows in Utica he is ready for a bigger challenge. Let’s say Nemec does well. Really well. Well enough that by eighth or ninth game, that it is apparent that going back to the AHL may not help Nemec all that much and certainly not help the Devils. It is a shot in the dark now, but a few months in Utica and/or a few good games with New Jersey will add to the temptation to keep him with the Devils and not let that ELC slide.
  • He’s Actually Ready. Of course, the obvious reason to bring up Nemec beyond 9 NHL games for next season is that he’s ready to do so. I don’t think that was apparent in the Prospects Challenge or in his first preseason game. However, should he adjust a lot faster than anticipated and perform beyond expectations in Utica (or even in the next few preseason games), then the possibility that he’s ready for the NHL earlier rather than later has to be considered. Yes, this would risk his ELC ending earlier, but if Nemec is going to be as good as one hopes, then he’s going to cost a lot of money at some point. If Nemec makes New Jersey better right away, then it makes sense for Nemec to make New Jersey sooner rather than later. It is difficult to jump into the NHL, but everyone runs their own race and there’s no hard and fast rule that says Nemec has X number seasons to actually be ready. He’ll be ready as he develops his game and acclimates to the North American style and the organization’s expectations. If that happens in a few weeks or months as opposed to seasons, then so be it. It is not good for development to hold someone back as much as it is not good to rush them.

I still think the right move now is for Nemec to become a Comet after preseason. A call up here and there is fine. But it is better for all involved that development happens in Utica and he’s brought in when he is able to contribute to New Jersey. Even if the Devils have little to play for by then, both the Devils and Nemec will be best served by playing minutes that are earned and not just given. Will that definitely be in 2022-23? I do not know, so I am inclined to think it will not happen. Therefore, let his contract slide instead of letting him ride in the NHL. I do think it is possible that Nemec does so well in Utica that he can play 10+ games in the NHL and be good enough to stick afterward. I just have not seen that and there’s not some gaping hole on the blueline that requires his presence. Of course, just like pro wrestling, plans can change at any moment.

What do you think? Do you think Nemec is best served to play in Utica right away? For the whole season such that his ELC slides? If Nemec performs well or a spot on the blueline opens up for one reason or another, are you OK with letting that ELC start this season through Nemec playing 10 or more games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Nemec in the comments. Thank you for reading.