The New Jersey Devils have started to report for camp and the excitement will be ramping up around the team as we march towards Monday’s opening preseason games. While the Devils seem to have a mostly set roster, there are a few spots where there will be battles during camp to see who fills them on opening night. Even with two departures on the back end in Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, it seems the Devils have their seven signed defenders. Of course, this assumes the Devils stick with the 14 forwards, seven defenders and two goalie structure that they have in the past. But what if there were to be another player who proved they were worthy of being on the opening night roster?
Enter Simon Nemec; the Devils second overall selection from the 2022 draft has been rapidly growing and improving his game from the time he was selected. Despite a somewhat sluggish start, Nemec posted a respectable 12 goals and 34 points in 65 games with the Utica Comets in his first season on North American ice. While I didn’t catch all of Utica’s games last season, the chances I did get to watch, I could see the evolution of Nemec’s game. I’m sure some of it could be attributed to adjusting to the aforementioned North American sized rink, but there was also genuine growth as the season continued. While Utica only lasted six playoff games, Nemec contributed a goal and three assists before the Comes’ season came to an end.
Which brings us to this past weekend’s prospects tournament. While he may have only tallied one assist in the first game, Nemec looked to be one of the most polished prospects on the ice in his two appearances. There were times that the opposition made other Devils prospects look like the raw youngsters they are, and Nemec would make a sound play to bail the team out. It’s not to say he was perfect, it’s not to say he’s a bona fide superstar, but it is to say among all of the prospects, he was standing head and shoulders above most, if not all of the players that he was alongside and up against.
Now we’ve finally hit training camp; the quest begins again for the New Jersey Devils to try to bring home their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history. And it begs the questions: could Simon Nemec be a part of the group making the attempt this season.
As I mentioned earlier, the logistics seem to say no, or at least not right at the start. The Devils have five returning defenders from last season in Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl and Brendan Smith. They have Luke Hughes set to join in a full time role after joining the team for teir final two regular season games and three playoff appearances. Colin Miller is also set to be a full time member of the defense after his acquisition from Dallas. So where does Nemec fit? How can he make this squad?
The way I see Nemec on the opening night roster is if he outplays two other players, those being Smith and Miller. Hamilton, Siegenthaler and Marino are complete locks to be on the team. I think Bahl could also be considered a lock as he is no longer exempt from waivers, and he brings a different skill set than most of the other defensemen. Hughes is a season further along in his development, and has played the left side, which the Devils have less depth on. That leaves two players to outplay.
Miller, while still defensively solid, was a healthy scratch for the Stars in the postseason despite appearing in 79 regular season contests. Perhaps his game isn’t aging well, or maybe he’s lost a step; even if one or both of those are the case, Nemec outplaying him could simply see Miller get bumped to the 7th D. Smith, meanwhile, does bring leadership and some physicality to the back end, but as I and others have discussed before, he gets beat by quicker players fairly regularly, and tends to take dump penalties, usually as a result of the first issue. I could see a scenario where Nemec comes to camp, demonstrates that the next step for his development is NHL minutes, and the Devils place Smith on waivers with the intent to have him in Utica as a veteran and the first call-up for injuries or suspensions.
I do think a lot of what happens with Nemec depends on how both he and Miller play in preseason. I think Smith right now is squarely in the #7 slot; if Nemec plays well and Miller does also, then Miller’s on the team and Nemec is in Utica. Having Nemec be the #7 makes little to no sense, as young players need consistent ice time to grow. He’s either an every night guy in the NHL or an every night guy in the AHL, not the “press box fill in as needed” guy.
My thoughts on it? I’m going bold; Nemec makes the team and the Devils have a very young, but very skilled and successful defense group this season. Not to say there won’t be growing pains along the way, but the future is now for the New Jersey Devils and Simon Nemec is going to be a big part of that future.
What are your thoughts on Simon Nemec’s chances of making the opening night roster? Do you think he outplays enough players to be part of the group? Is one more AHL season the best path for his long term development? Would you be worried with three younger defenders (Bahl, Hughes, Nemec) as regulars in the lineup? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!