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Wally Pipp Moment

December 5, 2023, 5:55 PM ET [1 Comments]
Guest Writer
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While last Friday's sloppy loss to the worst road team of the millenium got the deserved headlines and drew the consternation of Devils fans, the silverlining of a spectacular first game from Simon Nemec conjured a name from the past to pop into my head:

Wally Pipp.

For those who dont know, Mr. Pipp was the Yankees first baseman who, on June 2, 1925, complained of a headache (rumor has it) and watched as young Lou Gehrig was penciled in at first base, a job he would hold for that game—and the next 2128 after that. Good ol' Wally, a two-time AL homerun king and World Series champ, was through with the Yanks, traded to the Reds, and retired three years later.

Was this Dougie Hamilton's Wally Pipp moment?

Hopefully not literally, since there are a lot of years and a lot of cap space remaining on Dougie's hefty contract, but for this season at least, it looks as if the page has turned. The Devils have been coy about the timeline for Hamilton's injury, but judging from recent NHL history, the odds are stacked against him being a factor for the rest of the season.

The last two NHL players to have pectoral muscle surgery in-season (according to the Great Google) were the Wild's Matt Dumba in December 2018 and the Ducks' Max Jones in October 2021, neither of whom played another NHL game in their injury years. Of course, seasoned Devils fans will remember Travis Zajac's pectoral tear while off-ice conditioning in the summer of 2017. While Travis came back to the team in November, after only 3 months out, he was a shadow of himself, scoring only 2 points in his first 20 games after his return. Not to pile on more bad news, but Dumba and Zajac both said that it took them more than a year to feel right after their injuries.

Hopefully Dougie's tear is less severe, but even in the best case scenario, the Devils must fight to get themselves back into playoff position without their big, mobile, righty defenseman with one of the league's best point shots.

Which brings us to ths flip side of the Wally Pipp coin — and a sneaky sense of serendipity despite the injury: the Devils just happened to have a big, mobile, right-handed defenseman with a powerful shot waiting in the wings for his chance. Simon Nemec, the #2 pick from 2022 was called up from Utica to play his first NHL game against the Sharks on Friday. Now, he probably won't *quite* ascend to the notoriety and excellence of the self-described "luckiest man on the face of the earth..." but he looked like the real deal. In fact, given Hamilton's somewhat stuttering start to the season (perhaps abetted by a lack of confidence that came with being stripped of PP minutes...) Nemec actually looked like an improvement.

Alas, it wasn't perfect—Nemec was on the ice for three goals against, and Simon, Luke Hughes, and Akira Schmid looked very much like the three rookies that they are as they gave up a backbreaking goal to Granlund with 6 minutes left—but the good certainly outweighed the bad.

The Devils' coaching staff also realized that, giving the debutant 22:38 of ice to lead all New Jersey defenseman as Nemec recorded two assists and anchored the second powerplay unit. (I'm not sure how to find out how many times in NHL history a rookie defenseman led his team's defense in ice time in his first NHL game, but it can't have happened too often.) Not to put too much stock in the statistics from a dumpster fire of a game, but Hamilton only exceeded Nemec's ice time four times in his 20 games so far this year.

Challenges are coming: the Devils need to find consistency and cohesion on a four-game northwest road swing that begins tonight with the Hughes' family feud in Vancouver. Playing the Sharks is pretty much like playing a good AHL team, which will not be a valid comparable when the Devils meet a Canuck team that has been the surprise of the NHL, Kraken and Flames squads trying to swing their seasons around, and McDavid and Draisaitl next Sunday; yes... we will have learned a great deal more about Nemec's feasibility to slot right into the right side 'D' after this road trip is over.

As promising as it was, one game does not a career make....

...but that's probably what Wally Pipp thought as well.
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