Nemec’s confidence high as he returns to Utica Comets
UTICA —There were mixed emotions for Šimon Nemec.
For the 18-year-old Utica Comets defenseman, the feeling wasn’t related to his play at the world junior championships over the last few weeks in Canada as he impressed by all metrics. But, the New Jersey Devils prospect wanted to help his home country of Slovakia get into the medal round of the tournament. Slovakia was edged by Canada in overtime in the quarterfinals on Monday. Slovakia did earn an upset win over the United States in the tournament.
“It was a great experience,” Nemec said Thursday in an interview with the Daily Sentinel following Comets’ practice. “We played really good. But, still we were disappointed because we lost in the quarterfinals. We felt we can go to the semifinals. But, that’s hockey.”
Nemec’s feelings are understandable given he was Slovakia’s captain and has been a key component in helping propel the country on the international stage. He had five points in five games in the tournament. Media at the tournament in Halifax and Moncton noted Nemec’s character and leadership. He said he “tried to be the best captain” he could be.
“I think he had his fingerprints all over those games against the U.S. and Canada,” Comets coach Kevin Dineen said. “He logged a ton of ice time and it is a good step in his development.”
Nemec said his “confidence is higher” in his return to Utica, though he noted he felt “a little bit tired mentally.”
Nemec – known by the nickname “Nemo” to Utica teammates and staff – returns to the Comets ahead of the team’s first three-games-in-three-days stretch this season. Utica is set to take on Hartford at 7 p.m. Friday in Utica. The team is scheduled to play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Springfield and 3 p.m. Sunday in Providence.
Utica (14-9-5-1, 34 points) has a season-best eight-game point streak (6-0-2-0) following an overtime setback to Toronto on Tuesday. Utica has gained considerable position in the North Division with help from the recent hot streak. Utica is in third place in the seven-team division.
Nemec, the Devils’ second overall pick in the 2022 draft, last played with Utica on Dec. 17 before leaving for the tournament. He’s shown well on both sides of the puck – and had a role on special teams – while playing big minutes with Utica in his first pro season in North America.
He has three goals and 11 points, which is third-most among Comets defensemen behind Reilly Walsh (18) and Robbie Russo (11).
That’s good considering he’s playing against guys that can be a decade older than he is, though he did play at the pro level in Slovakia.
“I think I started a bit slower (with Utica). But, I’m getting used to hockey here and life, too,” said Nemec, who noted he wants to improve his offensive and defensive game. “I can still get better.”
He noted that his defensive partner veteran Tyler Wotherspoon has been helpful.
“You expect there to be a learning curve … there’s a ton of (aspects on and off the ice) that goes into it,” Dineen said. “I think he’s handled it very, very well.”
Schmid recalled and Thompson assigned
There were a slew of roster changes Thursday, which were announced after 5 p.m.
Most notably, goaltender Akira Schmid was recalled from Utica. He was not at Comets’ practice Tuesday — goalie coach Brian Eklund filled in alongside Nico Daws — and Dineen confirmed Schmid had been recalled. New Jersey later said Mackenzie Blackwood was out as a “precaution.”
Schmid has split time between New Jersey and Utica this season. After returning from his previous NHL stint in December, he appeared in four games with Utica going 2-0-2. He has a 2.72 goals-against-average and an .887 save percentage with Utica.
The 22-year-old has impressed this season at the NHL level while appearing in eight games.
To replace Schmid, rookie Isaac Poulter has been called up to the Comets, according to ECHL and AHL transactions. The Comets had not mentioned that move Thursday.
Poulter is 1-1-2 with a 4.35 goals-against average with Utica.
“We’re very comfortable with Nico (Daws) as well as Akira. Poulter has played some fine games for us, too,” Dineen said.
The Devils also announced that forward Ondrej Palat has come off injured reserve after being out since October.
To make room on the 23-man roster for Schmid and Palat, the Devils assigned forward Tyce Thompson back to Utica after a two-game NHL stint.
Thompson gives Utica a top-six forward option and help on the power-play. He has six goals and 13 points in 22 games with Utica.
Forward Brian Pinho (upper-body injury) skated in a no-contact jersey Thursday. He’s missed the last three games.
He’s considered questionable for Friday’s game, according to Dineen. He’ll be evaluated “to see where he’s at moving forward,” Dineen said.
Forward Samuel Laberge (lower-body), who has also missed the last three games, won’t play this weekend, Dineen said.
Defenseman Dylan Blujus, who has missed the last eight games, participated in a normal jersey Thursday.
With Blujus back and Mason Geertsen continuing to play defense, Utica has eight players as options on defense. Lineups usually feature six defensemen.
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