Newark, NJ – Now that he’s a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s time to look at who the Devils’ Damon Severson replacement could be. Fortunately for General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, that replacement may very well be in-house. Luke Hughes is the Devils’ top prospect. However, there’s little doubt he won’t be a full-time NHLer next season. Taking him out of the equation, Simon Nemec is a very, very close second and might be next in line to play for the Devils.
Severson, albeit a luxury, was mostly rolled out on the Devils’ third pairing this season. Despite the deployment, he played an average of about 20 minutes per night in 81 regular season games. That ranked Severson fourth among defenders behind Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and John Marino. It also tied Severson with Ryan Graves.
There’s question as to whether or not Fitzgerald can afford to keep Graves. He certainly knew he couldn’t afford Severson, and thus he’s in Columbus. Unfortunately for Graves, he’s potentially in the same boat. Frank Seravalli of DailyFaceoff projects Graves to earn a five-year contract that carries a $5.1 million average annual value. Sure, the Devils have a little over $34 million to work with this summer, however, Fitzgerald has 12 contracts to address with Severson out of the picture and Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier to command large cap hits.
Hughes’ contract will certainly help with his $925K cap hit keeping his cost low. Nemec’s cap hit is slightly lower at $918,333. A combined $1,843,333 between Hughes and Nemec certainly helps Fitzgerald’s ability to be flexible and will to retain his impact-restricted free agents. The question is, is Nemec ready?
Selected second overall by the Devils in the 2022 NHL Draft, Nemec impressed the Devils brass right away. Fortunately, the young defenseman crossed the pond from Slovakia to North America and seemingly didn’t miss a beat on the ice. Nemec remained with the Devils for their entire training camp last September and was even named to the opening night roster. The Devils quickly demoted Nemec to the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets the following day in favor of Kevin Bahl.
Nemec didn’t just stick around for the paper transaction. There was a chance he might get his feet wet in the NHL right away. Sending him to Utica was the right call, however. Nemec needed time and development to adjust from European to North American ice. According to Fitzgerald, Nemec adjusted well to the challenges.
“As an 18-year-old, the American Hockey League is a tough league,” Fitzgerald explained. “It really is. We thought the strides and the steps that he made this year were huge. It’s a learning curve. There are games where I’m sure he understood things that the coaching staff wanted him to do differently. He applied it, and you saw a glimpse of what our future looks like.”
Talking about the future got Fitzgerald really excited. He potentially drafted two elite talented defensemen in Hughes and Nemec that will man the Devils’ blueline for the distant future. Watching the development has truly been something to marvel at. It’s a big summer for Nemec according to Fitz. The Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia native is NHL-ready in terms of size at 6-foot-1, 191 lbs, however, could stand to put on a little more muscle. Despite his size, that’s not what kept him off the NHL roster in September. According to Nemec, he knew exactly what he needed to work on.
“I think it was my defense,” Nemec told NHL.com. “We focused on the defense the whole year in Utica. I think I improved my defense. I think I’ve improved my game a lot this season. But you never know in the NHL. I’ll just come to the main training camp and try to make the team next season.”
While focusing on his defense, Nemec totaled 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points in his rookie professional season. He added a goal and four points in six playoff games. As a result, Nemec received the honor of being named to the AHLs Top Prospect Team. Not bad for a 19-year-old playing in North America for the first time.
In terms of direct physical comparison, Severson and Nemec are pretty close. Nemec at 6-foot-1 is slightly shorter than Severson at 6-foot-2. However, Nemec is about 15 pounds lighter. That’s probably why Fitzgerald put such an emphasis on the 19-year-old’s summer.
As of now, Nemec doesn’t have a ton of competition as Severson’s replacement. In New Jersey’s pipeline, Nemec is one of two right-shot defensemen in the system signed to an NHL contract. The other is Reilly Walsh, although he’s set to become an RFA. There’s little reason to believe he won’t return, however. That is, of course, if he doesn’t see a clearer path to the NHL elsewhere.
Walsh had quite the season for Utica himself. The 24-year-old was second in team scoring, totaling nine goals and 41 points in 71 games. With three professional seasons under his belt and a near-repeat performance from 2021-22, Walsh is certainly going to do everything he can to claim a spot in the NHL. In addition to Brendan Smith who is already on the roster, motivated to prove himself, and can play the right side, it appears those two are Nemec’s only competition this September.
All things considered, Nemec appears to be the favorite to replace Severson. The 19-year-old has proven himself internationally and at the AHL level. After his nomination to the AHL Top Prospects Team this season, there might not be much for him left to prove. According to the Devils GM, he expects Nemec to make a push to make the roster in September.
“Listen, there’s no rushing (Nemec)” Fitzgerald said. “My guys tell me he’s going to come in and he’s going to push for a spot and that’s all you want. You want to see that growth, you want to see that development. It’s a huge summer for a young player like that as an 18-year-old turned 19. It’s a big summer for him. The gains that he can make in the summer strength-wise are only going to help him become the best player he possibly can be. But we don’t forget that he’s only 19 years old and what will he look like when he’s 22, 23, 24, 25? It’s exciting, to say the least.”
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