Slovakian defenseman Simon Nemec was only 15 years old the night he became the youngest player in his native country’s top professional league to notch an actual point.
On Sept. 17, 2019, just days off his pro debut with HK Nitra in Slovakia’s Extraliga, Nemec picked up a secondary assist late in what became a blowout of the visiting MHK 32 squad from the teenager’s hometown of Liptovsky Miulas, near the Polish border. The home crowd of 1,886 fans at Nitra Arena went wild as the assist was announced, a cheering ritual much repeated the next two years, including this past season as Nemec helped guide his squad to a berth in the league championship round.
A big question now is whether Kraken fans might soon be cheering the prodigal Nemec, 18, one of two oft-discussed puck-moving, righthanded-shot defensemen the team could select with its No. 4 overall selection in next week’s NHL entry draft in Montreal. Czech native David Jiricek was long viewed as having the higher ceiling and is clearly the more physical of the pair, but a knee injury he suffered in December and Nemec’s strong play both domestically and internationally this past season have thrust the Slovakian higher on some pre-draft prognostication boards.
Kraken scouting director Robert Kron hails from the neighboring Czech Republic and has close ties to Slovakia and its hockey program, so he’s well aware of Nemec’s historical achievements at a young age.
“That really kind of put him on the map, when you’re that early to go pro,” Kron said. “Especially as a defenseman. That’s not usual at all.”
For the Kraken, any projection of who they’ll select in the draft is based on the widely held assumption that some combination of Kingston Frontenacs center Shane Wright, Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky and U.S. National Team Development Program forward Logan Cooley will be taken among the first three picks.
After that, much talk tends to focus on Jiricek and Nemec as the next level of the best players available. Considering the Kraken have last year’s second-round pick, left-handed defenseman Ryker Evans, set to make his pro debut this fall, the temptation to draft a right-handed partner to pair him with in the NHL a few seasons from now will likely be there.
Only a handful of 15-year-olds have ever played in Slovakia’s top circuit, and Nemec and forward Dalibor Dvorsky are the only ones that age to play more than 10 games in a season. Dvorsky last year set a record as the youngest goal scorer in Extraliga history at 15 years, 7 months and 18 days, while Nemec remains the youngest point-getter at 15 years, 7 months and 2 days.
And it’s the maturity and poise beyond his years that’s garnered the 6-foot, 190-pound (some websites describe him as pushing 6-foot-1) Nemec so much attention. His offensive abilities and transitional game have drawn natural comparisons to Colorado Avalanche star Cale Makar, who just won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But Nemec, though a strong skater, isn’t quite as explosive or offensively dynamic as Makar. Some critics also suggest he’s a little too offensive-minded and prone to giveaways and counterattacks.
Still, he is considered a solid defender with an active stick that can take pucks away from onrushing forwards.
“His defensive ability is great,” Kron said. “The thing with him is he wants to have the puck all the time. So, it might look like he’s not interested in defense or might be a little bit high risk at times.
“But that comes from a place where he just really wants to be around the puck and make plays.”
Nitra has been giving Nemec a ton of extra 5-on-5 minutes considering he’s still just a teenager facing fully grown men. He’s known for carrying the puck up the ice into the opposing zone, using strength in his legs, body and torso to create separation from opponents.
His awareness and hockey sense in all three zones is viewed by scouts as one of his best attributes. He doesn’t buckle under pressure in his own end and clearly enjoys “quarterbacking” play when his team has the puck.
That on-ice presence has enabled Nemec to represent Slovakia on the international stage in several tournaments starting at age 15, when he became the youngest player in the history of the Under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup top prospects event. Last February, he was on Slovakia’s bronze medalist squad at the Winter Olympics in Beijing ahead of a strong May showing at the IIHF World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
An equally strong showing in the draft could see him pulling on a Kraken jersey.