Nemec, Foote part of 'very bright' future after season with Utica Comets
Following each American Hockey League season, there are players that are viewed as possibly getting an opportunity with the NHL club.
Players who shined with the Utica Comets during the 2022-23 season are no exception.
Defenseman Simon Nemec holds high expectations as the New Jersey Devils’ second overall draft pick in 2022. Nemec, who started his first pro season in North America last fall at 18 years old with Utica, continues to draw praise.
New Jersey General Manager Tom Fitzgerald said the AHL is very tough for an 18-year-old.
“We thought the strides and the steps that he made this year were huge,” Fitzgerald said in a season-ending media availability via Zoom Wednesday. “It is a learning curve. There are games where I’m sure there are things he understood the (Utica) coaching staff wanted to do differently, he applied it and you saw a glimpse of what our future looks like.”
The future, Fitzgerald said, is "very bright."
There is a possibility that after playing a full regular-season with the Comets and earning the team’s Most Improved Player honor, Nemec could carve a role with the Devils to start the 2023-24 season.
New Jersey is likely to have a busy offseason. There are a number of free agents —including unrestricted free agents Ryan Graves and Damon Severson — that the organization has to decide whether to re-sign. The group includes Utica fan favorite Kevin Bahl.
The Devils also have defenseman Luke Hughes, who made his debut after his standout college season. He’s also expected to vie for a role with the Devils, Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald also noted 2021 fifth-round pick Topias Vilen, who joined Utica at the end of the season.
All of that’s to say: Time will tell on what’s next for the player nicknamed “Nemo.”
“There’s no rushing (Nemec). My guys tell me that he’s going to come in and push for a spot (at Devils training camp),” Fitzgerald said. “That’s all you want. You want to see that growth and development. It is a huge summer for a young player like (Nemec). ... The gains he can make in the summer strength-wise is only going to help him become the best possible player he can. 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 is exciting to say the least.”
Nemec, who had previous pro experience in Slovakia, played big minutes for Utica including a role on the power play. He was fifth among AHL rookie defensemen with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 65 games.
Nemec said during the Comets’ season he felt his biggest developmental steps came on defense.
Comets coach Kevin Dineen said Nemec was “full of enthusiasm and skill.”
“He threw it all on the ice. He would put it into areas that were sometimes counterproductive — meaning jumping up onto the rush in inopportune times — and it is kind like a dog seeing a bone: You just want to go. I think he had a hard time resisting that,” Dineen said earlier this month during his end-of-year availability. “I think you don’t want to take that out of a player, too. Because that’s where the enthusiasm and the skill can be added. I think just that learning curve of risk versus reward really improved as the season went on.”
Nemec is playing more hockey following the end of the Comets’ season, having joined Slovakia at the 2023 IIHF World Championship in Finland and Latvia.
Fitzgerald was also asked about any other player from the Comets this season that his staff has raved about. Fitzgerald immediately said Nolan Foote. The net-front presence/power forward could also take a spot with New Jersey next season.
Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon previously praised the 22-year-old during the season.
Foote became the 16th Utica player to score 20 or more goals in a season in his third pro year. His 37 points were third-most in 55 games with the Comets. His goals and points were career-bests.
“I think he’s the example of proper player development,” Fitzgerald said of Foote, who has played 19 NHL games. “He’s a kid that scored goals from the outside in junior. He does have a hell of a shot. I think with our guidance and help through our development team and coaches (in Utica), Dan MacKinnon and educating him on what type of player we felt he would look like at the NHL level, how he would be successful and try to help him re-invent himself.”
Fitzgerald acknowledged that Foote — usually a winger — played center when needed.
“That’s incredible for a kid who has never really played center. He’s got good size and his skating has improved,” Fitzgerald. “He’s a real good kid. But, he was committed to it. That’s all you ask. When I look at player development, I look at where he started, where he was and where he’s going. I give all credit to our (Utica) coaching staff. But, most importantly, Nolan should get a lot of credit as well. He accepted it. He’s thriving. We have big plans for Nolan.”
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