How Simon Nemec and David Jiricek match up against each other
From nearly the first day of the 2022 NHL Draft cycle, the debate at the top of this class for the title of the best defenseman has come down to two two-way, eastern European blueliners – Simon Nemec and David Jiricek.
Nemec, a 6-foot-1 right-shot defenseman from Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia has been on the draft radar for quite some time while playing in his native country at the junior, professional, and international levels.
The exact same thing can be said of Jiricek, a 6-foot-3 right-shot from Klatovy, Czechia.
The pair will almost certainly be the first two defensemen off the board at the 2022 draft on July 7, but what sets these two apart from the pack, and what sets them apart from each other?
RELATED: FCHOCKEY’S 2022 NHL DRAFT GUIDE IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR IMMEDIATE DOWNLOAD!
Nemec and Jiricek have long been considered the two top defensemen available in the 2022 draft class, but have also been considered among the top prospects in their region for quite some time now.
Nemec made his debut at the professional level at age 15, skating in 12 games for HK Nitra in 2020 – placing him in rare company as one of the youngest players to ever play in Slovakia’s Tipos Extraliga. Throughout his three-year Extraliga career, Nemec tallied 48 points in 88 games, placing him third in the league’s all-time U18 scoring only behind two of the greatest Slovak players to ever play in the NHL in Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa.
His 26 points in 39 games this season share the same third all-time honor by a draft-eligible Tipos Extraliga skater behind the same two players. Throughout the past three years, Nemec has been a staple for Slovakia at international events, already making two appearances each at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, World Junior Championships, and the Men’s World Championships, as well as skating in a significant role for Slovakia at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
Jiricek followed a similar path of his own, coming through junior and professional hockey in Czechia. Jiricek made his professional debut at the age of 16 in the Czech Extraliga, skating in four games for HC Plzen in 2020 before earning his full-time spot on the big club the following season. During the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Jiricek cemented himself as one of the top junior-aged defensemen in the history of the Czech Extraliga, holding the record for most points by a U19 defenseman in that league with 20 points in 67 games.
Like Nemec, Jiricek has also become a staple for his country at the international level, skating regularly in junior tournaments such as the U18 and U20 World Junior Championships, and also made an appearance this year for Czechia at the Men’s World Championships.
Moving into how these two players differ in their strengths and playstyle, their skating ability and overall mobility is a good place to start due to the increasing pace of play in the NHL.
Though Nemec is not one of the fastest nor most dynamic skaters in the 2022 draft, his game on both sides of the puck is built upon his agility and four-way mobility. Nemec is a capable north-south skater, able to build decent enough speed – though he could use more power through his stride extension to add an extra gear to his top speed. But it’s his ability to pivot and play on his edges that allows him to separate from his opponents. His hip and ankle flexion in his skating posture allows him to quickly make cuts and stay active while skating, allowing him to react to play quickly on both sides of the puck and his use of practical skill allows him to stay mobile with the puck on his stick.
Despite being a capable skater for a player his size, Jiricek could stand to improve multiple facets of his skating and overall mobility. Like Nemec, Jiricek’s straight-line speed and north-south speed are roughly average with inconsistencies in his stride extensions that limit his ability to build and maintain his speed – though unlike Nemec, Jiricek is fairly inconsistent with his agility as well. Jiricek could stand to improve his knee bend and correct his more upright posture when compared to Nemec, which would allow him to make quicker cuts and play more on his toes rather than on his heels. Jiricek is also a roughly basic puckhandler as well, and though I would not categorize him as a poor stickhandler, he is more prone to bobbles of the puck when compared to his counterpart Nemec. It isn’t to say Jiricek is a poor skater, as he profiles more at around the NHL average in his current state.
But when compared to the other top defenseman in this class in Nemec, the advantage has to go to the young Slovak defenseman.
Mobility is often tied very closely with puck-moving ability when it comes to the modern day defenseman, and the skating bases of Nemec and Jiricek does inform portions of their ability to transition pucks and start breakouts.
Due to his higher-end ability as a skater, Nemec has an easier time of carrying pucks out of his own zone when compared to Jiricek. Nemec’s ability to spin off checks, use quick cuts and shoulder fakes to gain separation on opposing forecheckers allows him to carry pucks out of his end and through the neutral zone more consistently. Nemec is a very poised and cerebral puck-carrier, often able to keep his head up while handling pucks and can find teammates with efficient and crisp breakout passes out of his own end.
While I find Nemec is more consistent in his ability to start efficient breakouts, I find Jiricek’s ability to stretch the ice with passes out of his own zone to be more effective. Jiricek is capable of sending long stretch passes to teammates and is consistently looking to generate quick-strike offensive opportunities, and this key difference is what differentiates these two defenseman as puck-movers.
Nemec is a reliable distributor who has more raw ability in his skating ability and is far more risk adverse than Jiricek, sometimes to a fault as he is guilty of at times dumping pucks out of his own zone in lieu of looking for plays to teammates. Jiricek is the far riskier of the two in his puck-moving tendencies – he stretches the ice with his long passes but is far more prone to poor reads at times and can turnover the puck in the middle of the ice when he fails to survey the ice completely.
The downsides of each defenseman’s puck-moving tool kits I believe can be coached out of them, but in terms of raw puck-moving ability, I have to once again give the advantage to Simon Nemec.
On the other side of the game, this is where the skills start to tip in favor of Jiricek. Nemec is the superior four-way skater, which in theory should make it easier for him to control gaps against oncoming attackers. While this is something I believe could be coached into his game and will need to be for him to become a legitimate top-pairing defenseman, Nemec does show inconsistency in his ability to read and react to oncoming speed while defending the rush and in turn is prone to allowing easy zone entries against.
Nemec’s gap control at times can be loose and more reserved, often opting to play it safe and protect the interior of the ice rather than playing more aggressively to generate turnovers and deny controlled entries against. When Nemec does challenge attackers with aggression, his stick is generally well positioned and he’s able to make plays with well-timed pokechecks, and it’s more about getting him to play with that aggression and defensive urgency with more consistency.
With Jiricek, he’s able to mitigate some of his shortcomings in his four-way mobility precisely due to his ability to react to speed, read and control gaps, and play with that aggression and intensity at his own blue line. Jiricek is able to maintain tight gaps when defending the rush, constantly using his reach combined with his stick body positioning to close on puck-carriers and limit time and space, forcing quicker decisions with the puck by carriers and in turn is able to generate more failed zone entries in those situations. Jiricek is guilty at times of committing too much to puck-carriers and can get caught puck-watching, but overall, the advantage in rush defense goes to him, however.
Keeping in theme with aggression and the ability to separate puck-carriers from the puck, each player’s physical traits and their engagement in that area of the game informs how they play on their half of the red line.
Jiricek, the bigger of the two, is the more physically mature player and in turn, is able to win battles for positioning deep in his own zone more consistently than Nemec. Due to Jiricek’s higher success rate of coming out on top in physical situations, how Jiricek and Nemec each handle play in their own zone is quite different.
Jiricek is very aggressive in pursuing physical play, often looking to lay open ice hits on opposing skaters to separate them from the puck or play physically in front of his own net to clear the crease. Nemec on the other hand is a much more patient and cerebral in-zone player, more often opting to shy away from physical contact in favor of angling away attackers with his stick positioning. Nemec is able to hold his own in his own end but will need to add more strength to his frame in order to consistently win those battles in high-danger areas in front of his own goal. As the more physically mature and overall more aggressive player, Jiricek clearly wins this area of the game.
On the offensive side of the puck, it’s not so much which player is better in that area of the game, but rather whose playstyle you prefer if you’re building your ideal top-pair defenseman, as their strengths and approaches in the opponent’s zone can be quite different.
Nemec is among the draft’s top puck distributors in the offensive zone, as he’s poised when handling the puck along the offensive blue line and displays high-end playmaking vision and crisp passing ability. Nemec is adept at generating scoring opportunities through his vision, whether it be finding teammates for one-time shots both in the slot and from the circles or by shooting for deflections.
Both defensemen are willing to activate from their offensive blue line and make themselves available to teammates as an option, though Nemec is more adept at carrying the puck down from the offensive blue line to create attacking lanes on a more consistent basis than Jiricek.
Where Jiricek really finds his niche as an in-zone attacker is in his ability as a shooter and perimeter attacker. He is capable of distributing pucks and quarterbacking the power play, but what he has that Nemec lacks is a powerful point shot, allowing him to be a scoring threat high in the offensive zone. He can shoot from the circles when given time and place shots well with power on his snap shot, but the power he is able to get on his one-timer and slap shot allows him to be a centerpiece on the power play and score from distance.
If you’re looking for a shooting centerpiece on your power play, Jiricek is your guy offensively; if you’re looking for a high-end puck distributor who can quarterback offensive play from the blue line, Nemec is your man in that department.
While Nemec ultimately claimed the top defensive spot on FCHockey’s final draft board, the space between these two defensemen is quite narrow, and we really won’t truly know who ultimately goes first until their names are called on draft day. While both categorizing as two-way defensemen at their cores, the two of them differ in their characteristics and strengths as hockey players, and it will come down to what each individual team values in a top-pair defenseman.
Both Nemec and Jiricek are projected by FCHockey to be first-pair quality defensemen, and it will be fascinating to see how these two stack up against each other in just a few year’s time.