Newark, NJ – The New Jersey Devils have two of the NHL’s best prospects in defensemen Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. There’s little doubt that someday, those two will be elite defensemen on New Jersey’s blueline contributing to the Devils’ anticipated long-term success. It could be sooner rather than later. However, they’re both rookies heading into the 2023-24 season. Devils head coach Lindy Ruff is leery of plugging in two rookie defensemen full-time following so much success in the 2022-23 season.
“It’s pretty hard to have two of them,” Ruff explained to Dan Rosen of NHL.com in Nashville in June. “You’ve got to be careful of getting too young too fast, especially on the back end.”
The Devils lost 949 games of NHL experience when they traded Damon Severson and let Ryan Graves walk in free agency. Colin Miller reimbursed New Jersey some experience. However, he’s more of a depth add than an impact player.
The expectation is that Hughes will be in a full-time role with New Jersey in 2023-24, having already made an impact in the eyes of Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald.
“That’s the plan,” Fitzgerald explained to the media at end-of-year conferences. “I watched him play in game five (in the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes). I saw him lead our defense core in ice time and I also had to continue to look and say he’s only 19, wow. The future is bright with Luke Hughes. He’s a mature 19-year-old. He understands it. I think the thing that I really enjoyed watching was his patience and the way he worked in practice, especially during the first round. We got a glimpse of Luke in the last couple of games in the regular season. But what a team player.”
Hughes’ regular season sample size was small, but impactful. He collected two points in two games, both coming in the latter bout against the Washington Capitals. The 19-year-old Michigan product scored his first NHL goal, an overtime winner, on a primary assist by his brother Jack.
You could see the poise in Hughes’ game. He doesn’t skate like a rookie and moves really well. His positional awareness is that of a veteran. He can transition the puck well and has good vision on the ice to begin a breakout. However, his game isn’t quite perfect and there was a hiccup or two defensively in his own end, something to be expected as a rookie.
Nemec had a really impressive first pro season in the American Hockey League. The Slovakian defenseman scored 12 goals and 34 points in 65 games with the Utica Comets and added a goal and four assists in six playoff games. His season earned him the honor of being named to the AHLs Top Prospect Team. The Devils are very excited with what they have in the former second-overall pick. Fitzgerald has spoken over and over again about how his eyes in Utica continue to talk to him about how Nemec is going to push for a roster spot. Regardless, it sounds like Fitzgerald understands, like Ruff, there’s no rush to bring him to the NHL right away.
“Listen, there’s no rushing this player,” Fitzgerald explained. “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 though that growth you want to see that development. It’s a huge summer for a young player like that as an 18-year-old turning 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. What will he look like when he’s 22, 23, 24, 25? It’s exciting, to say the least.”
Plugging in two rookies on the blueline opens the door for the opportunity to go through growing pains. Rookies are bound to make mistakes and if it costs you a game, it can cost you position in the standings. If the Devils decide to upgrade the goaltending, something Fitzgerald has contemplated this summer, it could mask any issues with playing Hughes and Nemec full-time. However, with Vitek Vanecek and the little experience Akira Schmid has in the NHL, you could see the Devils allowing more goals than they did last season resulting in a step backward for the franchise.
This doesn’t close the door on Nemec playing with the Devils next season. Training camp will certainly be interesting and competitive as Nemec will do everything he can to remain with the varsity squad. However, if he ends up in Utica, that doesn’t mean we won’t see him throughout the 2023-24 season on recall.
The Devils took a massive step forward last season. They’ve gone from a rebuilding team to a Stanley Cup contender in a matter of one season. New Jersey is looking to continue that upward trajectory. Rarely do you find an NHL team sustaining the success the Devils did last season playing two rookie defensemen nightly. We’ll see how this plays out.
One thing that is for sure is that Hughes will play for the Devils next season. As for Nemec, it appears he’s going to have to force New Jersey’s hand.
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