With the battle for the 2014 NHL postseason in full swing and the Dallas Stars right in the middle of it all once more, fans found a bit of an extra pep in their step when Monday it was announced that promising defenseman prospect Patrik Nemeth would make his NHL debut on Tuesday night.
The 22-year old left-shooting defenseman out of Stockholm, Sweden was drafted by the Stars way back in the second round of 2010, a bit of an afterthought to that summer's festivities given the controversy created by the Jack Campbell selection in the first round. Nemeth has flown under the radar a bit since then and only recently found himself in the spotlight thanks to some incredibly impressive play under coach Willie Desjardins for the Texas Stars down in Cedar Park.
Nemeth was drafted in 2010 after two impressive seasons in Sweden's junior system, putting up a goal and 19 assists in 30 games in the Under-20 league with AIK, along with a wholly impressive 120 penalty minutes. It's easy to see, in those early scouting reports, why he was targeted by the Stars and why he was 'just' a second round pick for a defenseman that comes to Dallas with so much buzz. Nemeth had good size at the time and had a reputation as a very physical player without the offensive output to really balance it out; the Stars, meanwhile, were focused on rebuilding the prospect system and injecting some muscle into a system that was increasingly devoid of size.
The big Swede would go on to have two successful campaigns in the SHL, the top league in Sweden. He never really found his role offensively and from a distance appeared to be playing at a "solid" level -- good enough to earn a place on Team Sweden for their national junior teams. It was here, on the international stage, that Nemeth really started to make a name for himself and stand out among the crowd.
Nemeth has never been a flashy offensive player and while he has a reputation for being a very physical defenseman, he's not one that's known for endless punishing hits or controversial plays. What he was proving, however, was that he was increasingly one of the best shut-down defensemen that Sweden was developing at the time while also showing that he has a raucous personality that instantly endears him to fans and teammates alike.
When Nemeth was drafted in 2010 in Los Angeles, I had the chance to talk to some scouts about the Stars' selections that year. I was told, immediately, that Nemeth would likely be looked upon as the "steal of the second round," and aside from perhaps Ryan Spooner and Justin Faulk, it certainly seems that assertion is holding true. Nemeth was considered at the time to be closer to NHL-ready than most defensemen his age, given his size at a young age and maturity in his defensive game.
Unfortunately, Nemeth's path to the NHL was delayed due to some unfortunate injuries the past two seasons following his jump to North America. A concussion in last season held him to just 47 games in 2012-2013 and derailed what had been a very promising start to his pro career; this season, a fracture in his foot took him away from the ice for nearly two months, and further delayed his continued development. It could be argued that Nemeth should have been in Dallas much sooner, especially considering the need for a player of his ilk, but it seems that the injuries could have been a blessing in disguise.
The knock on Nemeth, and the worry about his game at the NHL level, has always been his offensive ability and instinct. A big and hulking defenseman in front of his own net who has made a name for himself because of his physical play and shut-down ability, Nemeth has never been much of an offensive dynamo. He had just ten points in 74 games in two season in the SHL, and recorded just one goal in 47 games last season in the AHL. It's been odd to see production escape him, however, as Nemeth certainly possesses excellent skating ability and above-average skill with the puck -- along with a booming shot from the point that certainly stood out among prospects at development camp.
With the time off due to his injury, Nemeth has stated he worked with Willie Desjardins and the coaching staff in Austin in refining his offense and bringing a bit more balance to his overall game. That hard work has paid off significantly; since returning from injury on February 15, Nemeth has three goals and eight points along with 23 shots in 18 games, and is an astounding plus-13 over that span. More importantly, Nemeth has worked his way up to the top pairing in Austin and has seen his responsibility increase significantly over that time.
"He's a big Swede. He's a very good defensive player, keeps everything pretty simple," said Dallas Stars defenseman Jordie Benn, who played with Nemeth last season in Austin. "He never puts himself in a scenario where he gets stuck. He makes that first pass pretty well, he can skate. He's just a good, sound defensive defenseman."
There's a concern that Nemeth could be "nothing more" than another Nicklas Grossmann, a big Swedish defenseman who never could find a good balance to his game and who was eventually traded to the Flyers. While I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with a second-round draft pick turning into an everyday top-four defenseman, the sentiment is perhaps a bit unwarranted.
Nemeth's best asset, aside from his ability to play strong and nasty in his own end, is his hockey sense and intelligence with the puck. He might not have ever put up good numbers until recently, but his decision-making when the puck is on his stick has always been wholly impressive. There's a reason that the running joke is "teams simply do not score when Nemeth is on the ice;" he simply doesn't make bad decisions in his own zone.
As always when it comes to the Texas Stars, I turned to Stephen Meserve of 100 Degree Hockey for his hot sports opinion on Nemeth and what he's seen the past two years in Austin:
Patrik Nemeth isn't the flashiest of players for the Texas Stars. He follows a simple equation. When he's on the ice, the opposition just doesn't score. He's a team-best plus-19 this season despite missing two months of the season with a foot injury. He's also got a physical edge without it being a discipline issue.
After the trade deadline, something changed in Nemeth's game that saw him taking more offensive chances. He and Coach Desjardins won't admit that it's a concerted effort, but it seems to be. He's scored two in the last week and looks comfortable with the occassional run into the zone. He is not going to change into an offensive defenseman, but it's a nice wrinkle to add to his game.
Nemeth should have probably been called up twice in his career already but was out with injuries both times. He should not earn the label of 'injury-prone' in my opinion though. Concussions and stress fractures are not a result of poor conditioning.
This season he's been partnered most recently with Jyrki Jokipakka or Derek Meech. Both players are more offensively minded, which surely matches well with his expected pairing with Sergei Gonchar this evening.
Nemeth will make his NHL debut on Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals and will play alongside veteran puck-mover Sergei Gonchar on the third pairing. Despite all of the praise of his offensive game as of late, it's important to remember what brought Nemeth to the NHL in the first place and what the team will ask of him, and to keep expectations a bit in check in the short term.
As Stephen noted, Nemeth is not a flashy player. He's very physical and plays with a bit of a mean streak, but he's also not Derian Hatcher roaming the defensive zone looking to crack skulls against the glass whenever the opportunity arises. He'll play a simple game, he'll play hard in front of his net and he'll make good decisions -- hopefully -- with the puck and quickly move the puck up the ice. He's a very smart player, and has built a reputation of not putting himself out of position or taking himself out of the game because of bad hits. He's just a solid hockey player.
It's exciting that, once again, a prospect that has been on the radar for Stars fans for quite some time is finally making his way to the NHL. Nemeth has become one of the more exciting young players in the system, but as always our expectations should be checked at the door despite the high praise levied upon him above. I think we've seen in the past that it can be a bumpy road for young defensemen first making their way to the NHL, but Nemeth is undoubtedly proven to be the most NHL-ready of all of the defensive prospects in Austin.
What I do know is that Stars fans will instantly love him, just as they do down in Cedar Park. He plays hard, he plays physical and he has a great personality on and off the ice. Not much else you can ask for.