As a franchise that is no longer rebuilding, but is in win-now mode, much of what we as fans of the New Jersey Devils look at and analyze is about what needs to happen to improve things this season. After last year’s playoff run, and with super high expectations coming into the year, that is really all that matters. It’s why so much attention is being given to the goaltending position, among other things, as improvements need to be made right now for this year, as this is a really good team that should be in a playoff position.
However, across most of the last decade-plus, with poor teams in Newark year in and year out, what was equally as important as winning was player development. The young guys needed to play and improve for both the present and the future so that the rebuild could end. If that were still the case in 2023, we would probably be talking a lot more about how Simon Nemec has been doing since he was called up to replace an injured Dougie Hamilton. As a former #2 overall pick, a lot is riding on his shoulders to not only be an NHL regular, but to be, at a minimum, a top 4, perhaps even a top pairing defender for this team for a long time. Therefore, what he is doing now, as a 19-year-old in his first NHL experience, is noteworthy, even if the team is no longer in rebuild mode. Any franchise, in whatever state they are in currently, can not readily afford to whiff on a #2 overall pick, and if the Devils can actually sustain success here moving forward, he might be the last high-value lottery pick they have for years to come. That puts even more pressure on him to be a success, as for the foreseeable future, this franchise might be relying on free agents or depth draft picks to make impacts more than lottery draft picks.
That being said, let’s check out some of Nemec’s stats from his first 6 NHL games. Stats for the following chart come from Natural Stat Trick:
There are some interesting tidbits to note from the chart. First, it has to be said that when looking at game-by-game numbers like this, how the team did overall also needs to be noted for context. For example, Simon’s worst possession game was the Seattle game, but the Devils as a whole ended with a 42% Corsi, so he wasn’t significantly below how the team performed overall in that department. Meanwhile, in the Edmonton game, he had a fantastic Corsi, and it was despite the fact that the Devils only ended with a 53.33% Corsi, so he had an excellent game from a possession point of view. In truth, he has mostly not been an anchor up to this point, despite three games there where he was underwater in Corsi. In those games, he was mostly playing to the team average, within a few points.
The one area where he was really poor was against Boston, where despite New Jersey ending with a 49.05% expected goals percentage, Nemec ended at a miserable 14.74%, significantly worse than the team average. This was also despite playing the most minutes of anyone on the entire team overall that night at 22:13, and also having over a 57% offensive zone faceoff percentage. He was given somewhat sheltered starts against Boston and was given tons of ice time, but the ice was mostly tilted against him all night.
Otherwise, his time here so far has been solid, it has to be said. He has been thrown into different scenarios in these games, with 3 games where he had an OZFO% above 50%, playing in a sheltered role, and the other 3 games where he was thrown to the wolves and given relatively few offensive zone faceoffs. He has responded with 3 points in 6 games, not bad for a young defenseman who isn’t entirely known for his offense, and has some strong possession games to boot. It isn’t a resume of pure dominance, but that is ok. You wouldn’t expect that from a 19-year-old kid in his first NHL experience anyway. You just want to see that he has the ability and wherewithal to fit in with the team and play like he belongs, and we have seen that.
As it has been noted many times, it usually takes longer for defensemen to develop than it does forwards. More forwards can make it and succeed before they turn 21 than defensemen can, and it isn’t unusual for defenders to not break into the league in a big way until perhaps ages 22-24. To see Nemec playing fairly well at age 19 is great to see. Again, he isn’t dominating by any stretch, but he is showing that he can play with the big boys and that he can belong here, and that is the biggest hurdle. Given that knowledge, unless he regresses and starts to really struggle, he is making it very difficult for Lindy Ruff and Co. to send him back down. Even if people come back healthy, he has a spot here if he can prove he can have a positive impact, or at least not a negative one. It would give him a chance to grow and develop at the NHL level and would put him on a trajectory to be a top-pairing type of guy once he fully hits his prime. That is what the Devils wanted when they drafted him, and it would be a huge boon for this team. Let’s hope he can keep it up.