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Young Defensemen Are Key For Devils

What wouldn’t we give to be young again? It’s an age-old adage. The older you get, the younger you want to be. Conversely, the younger you are, the older you want to be. 

On Sunday night at Prudential Center against the Ducks, an old Devil returned to burn the youngins. Adam Henrique, all of 33-years-old, recorded a hat trick – the first of his career – to fuel Anaheim’s 5-1 win over New Jersey. 

“Bonehead plays.” That was what Devils Head Coach Lindy Ruff partially attributed his team’s breakdown against the Ducks to. Ruff didn’t single out any specific players, but it’s fair to say some of the Devils’ young D-men were in the middle of those plays. 

20-year-old neophyte, Luke Hughes and 19-year-old Simon Nemec have been bright spots for the Devils this season. But tonight was a reminder that every peak also has a valley and those rookie defensemen will occasionally suffer from growing pains. 

To minimize their rookie growing pains, the Devils have sheltered some of Luke Hughes’ minutes and matchups this season. However, Simon Nemec has not been handled the same way to this point. 

If you take a quick glance at their respective average times on the ice, Nemec barely leads Hughes, 20:38 to 20:03. (Stats courtesy of hockey-reference). When you dive deeper the real discrepancy in their usages shows up. 

First, let’s break down Hughes’ average time on ice. At even-strength, it’s 16:56 and on the power-play it’s a healthy 3:05. Where Hughes falls short is his nonexistent penalty-kill time (0:00 average). 

Now for Nemec. His average even-strength time is 18:23, followed by a 1:10 power-play average and 1:03 average penalty-kill time. (Again, all stats courtesy of hockey-reference). 

If you’re wondering why a player with only seven career games under his belt (entering Sunday night), appears to be trusted more than a player with 33 games played (30 regular-season and three postseason games; not counting Sunday versus the Ducks), you’re not alone. 

One Scout who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained it like this, “It goes to the types of players they are. Hughes is more offensive-minded. He’s like his brother, Jack. Nemec is more of a prototypical ‘stay at home’ type. It’s not that the Devils don’t trust Luke, it’s just that they’re bringing him along slowly. On the other side, they felt Nemec was just too good for Utica anymore.”

Early on against the Ducks, Ruff and his coaching staff placed their trust in Simon Nemec as the rookie led all skaters in first period total ice-time with 8:32. That’s especially noteworthy when you consider there were six combined penalties (two were fighting majors) called during the opening frame. Hughes saw ample power-play time during the period (2:42) but was stapled to the bench for long stretches of time as he did not touch the ice during either of the two Devils’ penalties. 

It was a similar story after the second period as Simon Nemec’s total ice time for the game was a team-high 15:59. However, the third period is where things went sideways for the rooks. 

Alex Killorn’s goal 4:14 into the third period gave the Ducks a 3-1 lead and along the way, he exposed Nemec for being out of position as the middle of the ice was left wide open for the Ducks’ attacker. A little more than five-and-a-half minutes later, it was Troy Terry’s turn to deliver some hard lessons to the Devils’ young defensemen. First, Terry weaved his way past Nemec and then he turned Hughes inside-out before scoring the Ducks’ fourth goal of the game. 

From time to time, games like these are going to happen for the Devils pair of rookie D-men. The important thing is they continue to learn and grow from these experiences. After all, if the Devils are going to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, they’re going to need Hughes and Nemec to be key cogs in the team’s success. 

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