Luke Hughes Simon Nemec NJD split image

PRAGUE, Czechia -- Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec are going to be key to propelling the New Jersey Devils back into a perennial Stanley Cup Playoff team, according to captain Nico Hischier.

"They're big," Hischier said from the 2024 IIHF World Championship in Czechia, where he is representing Switzerland. "It's going to be big how they develop. They're going to be huge for us coming up in Jersey for all those years. They're obviously high picks for us. Not always easy with a high pick, young defensemen coming in the League, but they've done a great job so far already.

"I know they're going to be working hard and they're going to be even better for us in the years coming up."

Nemec, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, had 19 points (three goals, 16 assists) in 60 games for the Devils this season, and eight points (two goals, six assists) in 13 games with Utica in the American Hockey League. The 20-year-old finished third among rookies in blocked shots (105) and fourth in average ice time (19:52) among those who played at least 25 games.

It was his first taste of NHL action after playing 65 games in the AHL last season.

"He's a really good player who makes really good plays," Hughes said. "He's massive for our future as a team. We need him to continue to grow as a player and keep getting better. He's a really good player for us and we need him to keep doing with that."

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Hughes, the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft who turns 21 on Sept. 9, was one of three nominees for the 2024 Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the best rookie in the NHL as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, with Chicago Blackhawks forward Connor Bedard and Minnesota Wild defenseman Brock Faber.

He played all 82 games this season and led rookie defensemen in power-play points (25) and power-play goals (four) and was second in shots (135) and ice time per game (21:28). His 47 points (nine goals, 38 assists) are the most by a first-year player at the position since the franchise relocated to New Jersey in 1982.

"He's an awesome player," Nemec said. "His skating, it's unbelievable. We are roommates on road trips. He likes to joke and all this stuff. We're always talking about some funny stuff. It's good. Funny jokes. He's a great guy and a great hockey player.

"I really like to play with him. His best part is his play with the puck and his skating. On the power play when he goes coast to coast it's crazy to watch. He's one of the best skaters in the League already. It's great for him."

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The two are formidable pair.

Hughes, a left shot who was captain for the bronze-medal winning United States at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, and Nemec, a righty who captained Slovakia at the same tournament, had more than 175 minutes of ice time together for a position devastated by injury. Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton tore a pectoral muscle Nov. 28 and missed the final 62 games of the season. Jonas Siegenthaler missed 25 games because of separate foot and concussion injuries, and Brendan Smith was sidelined 10 games with a knee injury.

"It's definitely not easy," Hischier said. "I got into the League as an 18-year-old, so I know a little bit about that myself. As a defenseman, it's even harder going against all these strong guys in front of the net. They can outsmart them. You can just tell they're both players that have an impact on the ice."

The Devils hired Sheldon Keefe as coach to replace Travis Green on Thursday. They finished seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 10 points back of the Washington Capitals for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference after advancing to the second round last year. They have failed to qualify 10 times in 12 seasons.

Nemec knows he and Hughes are key to correcting that.

"But we are still young," Nemec said. "You never know what's going to happen. We played some games together and I think we were pretty good.

"It should be better next year, for sure."