Simon Nemec was simply 14 years previous when he arrived on the first main crossroads of his life. He was residing comfortably in a small city within the japanese reaches of Slovakia, however it was time to start out getting severe.

Nemec was an extremely gifted younger hockey participant, a defenseman with the uncommon ability to create and contribute offensively. He was additionally an achieved younger soccer participant, a fullback who may quell an opponent’s rush but in addition be a part of his membership’s assault.

“The people around him genuinely wondered if he was going to play soccer or hockey,” mentioned Marcel Sakas, Nemec’s agent. “Simon cherished each sports activities and he perhaps may have a profession in whichever one he selected.

“But we can say this now: He picked the right one because he’s one really special hockey player.”

Nemec, 18, is broadly anticipated to be the primary defenseman chosen when the primary spherical of the 2022 NHL Draft is held on July 7 in Montreal’s Bell Centre. He’s a right-shot, offensive blueliner at a time when such gamers are coveted within the NHL.

He might not have Cale Makar’s wheels and microprocessor — who does, aside from Makar himself? — however Nemec is a participant most NHL scouts mission to play on the highest pairing and prime power-play unit when he will get adjusted to the world’s prime league.

“Simon is a smart player and a smooth skater,” mentioned former NHL defenseman Branislav Mezei, a former first-round choose (No. 10 general in 1999) of the New York Islanders who performed with Nemec this season for HC Nitra in Slovakia’s prime league.

“Even as a young player in a man’s league he can run a power play. He can join a rush, too, every time there is a chance.”

In 2017, Nemec put away his soccer cleats to concentrate on hockey. He performed two seasons along with his native junior membership in Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia, earlier than he was inspired to hunt an even bigger stage by Sakas and others.

Sakas tells an excellent story about Nemec’s early days in HC Nitra’s group when he debuted for the highest membership.

“I told them I’ve got this 15-year-old kid who can already play at this level,” Sakas mentioned. “So they mentioned, ‘OK, we’ll see what he can do.’

“He performed a few video games and the coach known as me. He mentioned ‘How old is this kid? Are you sure he is 15?’ And they stopped Simon after observe that very same week to say, ‘Show us some ID.’ They couldn’t imagine he may play like that towards males.

“There are lots of young players today, even defensemen, who like to carry the puck and make plays and all of this. But he’s very smart about it. He thinks the right way. He’s a real pro. He knows where he needs to be and where he wants to go. That’s why, to me, so many NHL teams would be excited to draft him.”

Most count on the primary three picks (Montreal, New Jersey, and Arizona) to all be spent on forwards — Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkosky, and Logan Cooley, with Wright and Slafkovsky up within the air because the No. 1 general.

But Nemec gained’t wait lengthy after that. Seattle (No. 4), Philadelphia (No. 5) and Columbus (No. 6) all have an organizational want for a talented, right-side defenseman.

Nemec’s inventory soared over the past two seasons, first when he performed for Slovakia within the World Championships as a 17-year-old, however particularly this season when he represented his nation in each the World Championships and the Olympics.

With apologies to Finland, which gained the gold medal, Slovakia was the story of the Olympic match. The Slovaks took dwelling a bronze medal, the primary time that nation has ever completed prime three in an Olympics.

Nemec and Slafkovsky had been two of three youngsters on the Slovakian crew, becoming a member of Blue Jackets draft choose Samuel Knazko.

Mezei seen an actual change in Nemec final season, he mentioned, particularly after his expertise within the Olympics. He was ninth in scoring amongst defensemen within the Slovakian league in the course of the common season, however led the way in which within the postseason. He had 5 objectives and 12 assists as HC Nitra made all of it the way in which to the league finals.

“There was a lot of room to improve his skating, his strength, the shooting,” Mezei mentioned. “But he improved in a extremely quick time. It was spectacular to see month by month how he was getting higher, particularly from begin to end this season.

“He’s always had confidence with the puck. But now he makes decisions like a much older player. I have not seen in a long time someone improve that much in one season.”

NHL Central Scouting concurs. Nemec was sixth amongst European skaters within the mid-season rankings however climbed as much as No. 3 when the ultimate rankings had been launched this spring.

There’s little doubt now that Nemec made the fitting selection 4 years in the past when he resolve to concentrate on hockey, however he additionally believes his soccer coaching has been helpful. Soccer calls for fast ft and fixed surveillance of the taking part in floor, similar to hockey.

“Even when I wasn’t playing hockey when I was younger, I was working on skills that have helped my game,” Nemec advised The Athletic. “I play hockey and soccer in the same approach, the place I wish to be concerned on each ends.

“It was a hard decision to quit soccer when I had to, but I felt like I was better at hockey. Plus, hockey is a better sport, more dynamic than football. For me, it’s No. 1.”

(Photo of Simon Nemec: Mario Hommes / DeFodi Images by way of Getty Images)

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