“Ability is nothing without opportunity.”
It may have taken 22 games, but 19-year-old Simon Nemec finally got the opportunity he has been hoping and waiting for.
With Dougie Hamilton out indefinitely after undergoing surgery for a torn left pectoral muscle, Nemec received his first call-up from the American Hockey League.
The 2022 second-overall pick finally made his long-awaited NHL debut on Dec. 1 versus the San Jose Sharks.
An Impressive Debut
Sticking with tradition and going “no bucket,” Nemec skated out for a rookie solo lap at Prudential Center. He was met by cheers and applause from Devils fans, who lined the glass as he fired two shots at the empty net before his teammates joined him on the ice.
At 7:00 P.M., the puck dropped between the Devils and Sharks, and one minute and 36 seconds later, he jumped over the boards with Jonas Siegenthaler for his first NHL shift.
Unfortunately, during that shift, he watched an opposing Sharks player shoot the puck into his net to give San Jose a 1-0 lead.
It was a moment that further showcased how confident and poised Nemec is.
Being scored on seconds into their first NHL shift would rattle most young defensemen who are already experiencing a range of emotions that all need to be suppressed. Nemec seemed unfazed, quickly rebounded, and celebrated his first NHL point a few shifts later.
After 60 minutes, he earned two assists, becoming the first Slovak player to register two points in his first NHL game. He played 22:38, the most among defensemen and third-most on the team behind Jack Hughes and Tyler Toffoli.
“I felt good on the ice,” Nemec said. “It was crazy. It felt like a normal day. Maybe it’ll feel different tomorrow or the next day. I felt good on the ice and tried to enjoy this moment.”
Of course, there were mistakes, specifically in the defensive zone, as he was on the ice for three San Jose Sharks goals, but according to his head coach, it was a strong outing overall.
“If this first game is an indication, he handled the game well,” head coach Lindy Ruff said. “He skated in position. Didn’t give up a lot. You’ve got to defend first. For a first game, I thought he handled it well.”
Second Time Out
In his second NHL game, Nemec was given more responsibility as the coaching staff utilized him on the penalty kill in addition to the power play. He played shorthanded a little under three minutes, second-most among defensemen behind Siegenthaler.
He was only on the ice for one of the Vancouver Canucks’ five goals and finished the game with the third-most ice time on the team (21:45). His composure was once again on display as he confidently skated through all three zones at Rogers Arena.
So Why Did It Take Nemec So Long To Get the Call?
It is a question most fans had at the beginning of the 2023-24 season when Nemec did not make the Devils roster out of training camp.
On Sept. 21, general manager Tom Fitzgerald and Ruff fielded questions from the media during the first on-ice day of training camp. The head coach was asked what he saw out of Nemec during the 2023 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, NY.
“What I saw in Buffalo was (him) determined to play well defensively,” Ruff continued. “He had the puck a lot and was strong on the puck. (He) did not have a lot of risk in his game. As a young defenseman, if you put too much risk in your game, a lot of times that can go the wrong direction on you.”
“I saw good things, and I think he understands where his game had to get better, and our job as coaches is to help him get there.”
Nemec appeared in four preseason games for New Jersey and finished with four points (two goals, two assists).
Ahead of his NHL debut, Ruff spoke to the media and reflected on Nemec’s camp.
“I thought he had a good camp. I thought probably his best game was the last game of camp when we played (the Islanders),” Ruff said. “I thought his camp was a little bit up and down. I didn’t think his first preseason game was that great. As camp went along, it got better.”
The inconsistencies the coaching staff saw, coupled with the Devils already having one rookie and one young defenseman on the blue line, make it understandable that Nemec began the season with the Utica Comets.
Taking Advantage of His Opportunity
Players never know what an 82-game schedule can bring. Trades happen, Injuries occur, opportunities are presented, and things can change on a dime.
A week ago, Nemec was handed a big opportunity, but with that came a bit of pressure. While there is no official timetable, Hamilton is expected to be out long-term.
Nemec is not guaranteed to be the 6-foot-6 defenseman’s replacement throughout his recovery. A slew of young defensemen in Utica are patiently waiting for their own chance to prove they can play at the NHL level, including Santeri Hatakka and Daniil Misyul. In the NHL, a player’s replacement is always ready and available. If there is a dip in Nemec’s play, he can be reassigned to the Comets to allow the Devils to bring up a different option.
Even though two games is a small sample size, Nemec has taken this call-up and skated away with it. The young blueliner has proven he has the ability, and now it is up to him to continue to embrace the opportunity and prove he belongs in the National Hockey League.News Related