The Analysis: A deep look at Simon Nemec’s game
Slovakia hasn’t had much international success in the past decade, winning just one junior bronze medal since 2015.
They were, however able to capture the silver medal at the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup largely on the backs of an impressive young wave of prospects, led by top 2022 NHL Draft prospects Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec.
Nemec, a right-handed defenseman for HK Nitra of the Slovakian Extraliga, put his name on map in a big way. He was named the tournament MVP while captaining the upstart Slovaks.
The 17-year-old has been playing at the highest level of men’s hockey in Slovakia since midway through the 2019-20 season, making impressive cameos at the World Juniors and Men’s World Championship last year during his first full professional season. Despite being the youngest full-time defenseman in the Tipos Extraliga last season, Nemec played a consistent and vital role, making an impact on the power play and leading his team in points from the blue line.
In a draft class heavy on forwards with star potential at the top, Nemec’s well-rounded game and offensive upside should make him one of the first defensemen — if not the first — to be selected in the 2022 NHL Draft next July.
A STEP AHEAD OF HIS PEERS
Nemec has turned heads over the past year with great performances at both the World Juniors and Under-18’s, but it wasn’t until the Hlinka in August before Nemec wasn’t a full year younger than most of his teammates or opponents. Despite his relative youth, he has been trusted to play a large role both with his professional team (nearly 17 minutes per game) and internationally for Slovakia (21:34 at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup).
He shows the confidence to make plays under pressure and allows his skating agility and puckhandling skill to shine through, regardless of if he’s in a supporting role against men or in a starring role against his peers.
One of the first things you notice when you watch him in action is Nemec’s calm, smooth skating style and poise with the puck.
Here, Nemec (No. 37, white) swings back to his own goal line to retrieve the puck and, spotting a line change, accelerates up the ice and gains the offensive zone rather easily.
Nemec’s low stance in his stride and powerful lower half allow him to get up to top speed relatively quickly despite not possessing elite foot-speed. His wide base makes him shifty when carrying the puck and more adept at shielding the puck from defenders when he’s put under pressure by forecheckers.
In the above clip, Nemec (No. 7, blue) picks up a puck behind his net under heavy pressure. With just two crossovers, he accelerates away from his man and beats another with a crafty move along the boards to gain a clean zone entry.
It’s not just his feet that he does damage with, either, as he is an excellent passer on the breakout and excels at drawing defenders out of passing lanes and giving his intended target an easy pass reception. Nemec is pretty aggressive with his passing from his own end in particular, often looking to stretch the ice with a two-line pass and making confident decisions under pressure to clear the zone.
Here, (No. 7, white) he shows off some nifty footwork collecting a loose puck on a neutral zone regroup and using a deft fake to curl away from pressure. Recognizing a line change with his first look, he out-waited the forecheckers to open up a passing lane, which he exploits with a beautiful stretch-pass assist.
Using his edgework and great stick, Nemec is aggressive stepping up to deny zone entries at his own blue line, which leads to many plays broken up and frees up his team to counter-attack.
Nemec’s awareness to read the play and jump into the rush allows him to take full advantage of turnovers in the defensive zone. In the following play, Nemec steals the puck on a zone entry with a great poke check and then jumps into the rush, accelerating efficiently with explosive straight-line crossovers to create a strong rush chance for his team.
And finally, the clip below displays multiple strengths of Nemec’s in unison, turning a shift spent defending the cycle into a scoring chance for his team.
Nemec does well to force the play up the boards with a quick poke check along the boards, following the play up the boards but getting back into position quickly. He makes a quick transition to offense and gives a middle lane outlet to his teammate along the boards. He shoulder-checks before grabbing the loose puck and makes a one-touch saucer pass across the ice to create a quick two-on-two rush chance for his team.
It’s these types of quick decisions and crisp passes to push the pace of play that allows Nemec to produce points in a professional league at such a young age.
OFFENSIVE ZONE PLAY
Nemec’s not just a defenseman who can move the puck out of his own end efficiently. He’s a confident puckhandler on the back end and someone HK Nitra already trusts to run the point on their power play unit. He possesses great offensive awareness and seemingly has a knack for positioning himself along the blue line to receive loose pucks and passes from low in the zone. His agility and smooth edgework allow him to maneuver the line gracefully and find an open shooting lane to get the puck to the net.
In the following clips from recent pre-season games, Nemec shows some impressive dexterity and patience along the blue line to create better looks for his team with the man advantage. Here, Nemec is pressured at the line upon receiving a pass but waits an extra second before releasing a wrist shot to give his teammates time to create traffic in front of the net to screen his shooting lane.
And in this clip, Nemec follows up a pass towards the boards but pivots to receive the return pass, allowing him to drag the puck back to the middle quickly. He keeps the puck by his hip, getting great power on his snap shot without much of a windup as a result.
Nemec possesses a strong shot and a pro-level quick release, but it’s his vision from the point and advanced passing abilities that have entrenched him as a power play threat for both HK Nitra as well as Slovakia internationally.
Just watch Nemec’s patience with the puck in this clip, drawing the high forechecker out of position not once, but twice on this possession to create a clean shooting lane from a good position for his teammate:
His poise with the puck and smooth edgework allows him to deceive defenders when he’s walking along the blue line, using subtle shoulder and stickhandling fakes to draw defenders towards him before dishing the puck to an open teammate.
In this instance, Nemec uses the penalty killers’ passiveness against them, creeping down into the high slot and patiently out-waiting a shot block attempt, creating havoc in the crease and opening up an easy one-timer opportunity:
While Nemec’s advanced puck skills and vision make him a budding power play quarterback, he has the skill set to generate plenty of chances and create offense in the offensive zone at even strength. Nemec’s prowess in transition and his consistent attacking mindset to jump into the rush are already established, but it’s this same aggressiveness and offensive awareness that can help him create space for himself and prolong offensive zone shifts for his team.
Here, Nemec is pressured at the line but fakes his defender out of position. With no defenders near him, Nemec takes advantage of the open ice along the wall and moves the puck deep into the zone for an eventual creative move to the front of the net:
His poise is on full display as he passes up multiple opportunities to shoot, making a series of quick handles that gives him the room to cut to the front of the net. Again, he makes a strong read and takes the ice that’s given to him, turning what could have been a loose puck at the offensive blue line into a scoring chance in the crease for Nemec.
DEFENSIVE ZONE PLAY
Nemec gained more and more ice time throughout last season with HK Nitra, playing with more physicality and consistency in his own end and even earning a role on the penalty kill.
He defends the rush fairly well, controlling the gap well and making good reads to close off forwards trying to beat him along the boards. He also has good edgework and makes good transitions to keep pace skating forwards when opponents try to beat him at his own blue line.
In this instance, Nemec (No. 7, blue) defends the middle lane is late to close the gap on the Swedish winger (No. 18, yellow) but matches his speed while remaining square to him. He defends the rush without crossing over and opening himself up to dekes, and times a perfect poke check to shut down the opportunity.
Nemec is very strong on his stick and makes good reads most of the time to pressure opponents on the cycle, making him formidable in puck battles.
His puck skills and poise in traffic is evident in how quickly he’s able to make plays into space or to an open teammate while under pressure. Just take this play from a recent Olympic qualifier (No. 5, white), where he’s able to defend a partial odd-man chance on the rush and then recover the puck against multiple opponents before making a quick play for a zone exit.
There’s still room for improvement when it comes to his decision-making in the defensive end and for using his solid frame to his advantage when his team’s hemmed in their own end. Especially towards the end of last season, Nemec was more assertive establishing his positioning along the boards and disrupting cycle plays by taking his man out of the play entirely.
Here, Nemec (No. 15, blue) plays his man on the cycle perfectly, pressuring him with his back turned and taking him out of the play, freeing up his team to break out with numbers.
He has the size and strength on his skates to become more of a factor in the physical department, not only using his frame to separate his man from the puck but to make his opponents think twice about cutting to his side of the ice.
But then again, Nemec still shows signs of real progress in that department, particularly when playing against his peers and he can use his strength a little more.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
Nemec’s aggressiveness on the breakout and affinity for finding his second or third read rather than taking the easy outlet can sometimes come back to bite him in the form of turnovers in the neutral zone.
Here, Nemec does well to use his feet to get away from forecheck pressure and beat the first man. However, rather than finding the middle lane outlet or getting the puck out of danger along the wall, he opts for a cross-ice backhand pass that easily gets picked off and would likely lead to an odd-man chance against at higher levels.
While he has the skating ability and awareness to keep up with the pace of play in transition, Nemec has stretches where he struggles defending prolonged shifts in his own zone due to his lack of strength and physical assertiveness at the professional level. While his active stick allows him to transition the puck out of the defensive zone faster and keep himself ahead of the play, his frame and budding strength could be put to more use around the goalmouth to eliminate his check from the play.
Here, Nemec (No. 7, white) loses a loose puck race. Instead of trying to cut off his man’s route to the net or trying to knock him off course, Nemec stops moving his feet, losing body positioning and helplessly trying to poke the puck away as his opponent gets an easy drive to the crease.
Even taking into account some bumps and bruises that comes with playing at such a high level at a young age, there isn’t much to nitpick about Nemec’s game. Any concerns about his level of competition have been assuaged by some dominant international performances against his own age group.
With such a promising offensive toolkit, desired size and position, Nemec is a safe bet to be a first round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Can he show enough consistency in his own end to alleviate any concerns about his role at the next level? Can he continue to produce numbers rarely seen for such a young defender in a European pro league?
If Nemec continues his upwards trajectory and shows the same maturity and confidence with the puck, he could be one of the first defensemen taken in the draft and one of its first players to reach the NHL.