As soon as it was announced that New Jersey Devils defender Dougie Hamilton was injured and required surgery, speculation among the fan base began. The time for Simon Nemec to be brought up to the NHL was at hand! And while it seemed as though the plan at the start of the season was to keep Nemec in Utica for one more year of development, fate had other ideas. No Hamilton and a suspended Brendan Smith meant that instead of being able to go 11 forwards and seven defensemen, the Devils were now a blue liner short. Nemec indeed received his call-up and was placed into the lineup to make his NHL debut on December 1st against the San Jose Sharks.
...and it was a disaster.
Well, let me rephrase that; the team as a whole and the 6-3 loss were classifiable as a disaster. Nemec, however, looked good (some might even say great) in his NHL debut. Recording his first two career points, he also was on the ice for 22:38, leading all defensemen on that night. He followed that up with 21:45 of ice time (third most among the defense) in the team’s 6-5 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Part of the reason for this was the Devils employing him on the penalty kill, where he played almost three minutes.
Now I wouldn’t describe Nemec’s play as “dominant” in either of his first two games. He would be considered one of the better players in each of his first two games though. If he struggled, the Devils could have put him on the bench, as they seemingly did with Colin Miller in one of those contests. Was he perfect? Definitely not, however he did manage to earn his ice time and showed why he was coveted in his draft year and why the Devils couldn’t pass him up.
While Nemec has looked great in his first two appearances, it is just that: two appearances. I now we want to be encouraged by the results, especially in a season where success hasn’t been at the level we anticipated, but the limited sample size also means we need to temper our expectations. Nemec could go into tonight’s game and have an absolute stinker, worse than any of the eggs laid by Smith, Miller or the team on 12/1. He could wind up looking the part of a 19 year old rookie in his third NHL game.
Even if he continues to play as well as he did (or better) in games one and two, we still can’t act like Nemec is a panacea that will cure all of the team’s woes. Yes, he’s played well. Yes, we want him to continue to play well. Yes, we want him to grow into an important part of this team’s future staring with this season. At the same time, he’s not the one sitting in net, letting in a minimal of one softy per game. Nemec is one player, albeit a talented young player, and he has the potential to be an important piece for roughly two decades. Even if he surpasses some of the other defenders on the team by season’s end (he’s arguably already passed some vets, and is in the process of passing others) he has to find a way to do so consistently. The last thing we want is another player to excel for one season and then struggle at the NHL level for the rest of their career.
Nemec coming up from Utica has been a breath of fresh air, and the mistakes he has made are understandable, both as a young player and as someone trying to find his rhythm with limited practices. As he spends more time with the team, we could see him become an even more impactful player for the Devils, hopefully helping to keep some pucks out of the defensive zone, so that they don’t wind up in the back of the net. If the Devils want to see hockey in late April again, they need all the help they can get from everyone, including their teenaged defenseman.
What are your thoughts on Nemec’s play so far; do you think fans have been realistic with him so far? Are you concerned the fan base as a whole is expecting too much from him? Where do you think he winds up on the depth chart by season’s end? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!