Photo by Steven Ellis/The Hockey News
One of the best stories of the 2020 draft season was the impeccable rise of Nico Daws to OHL stardom.
To offer a bit of perspective, Daws had 34 starts in his first two seasons with unspectacular numbers. He was the 16th-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, but was otherwise not much of a threat as an 18-year-old backup and went unselected. Was he even capable of holding down the fort as a third-year OHLer?
Spoiler alert: yes, and in spectacular fashion.
I asked a scout last summer about Guelph’s goaltending situation with veteran Anthony Popovich on his way out. He said the only way the Storm were going to avoid total embarrassment in a rebuilding season for the club was to acquire a hotshot young gun to fill the role for a year or two. Turns out, they already had that goalie in the system. By the time Daws was named to Canada’s camp for the World Junior Championship in December, Daws had an incredible 13-2-4 record, .941 save percentage and four shutouts through 19 contests. So it wasn’t a surprise when he finished with the Jim Rutherford Trophy as the OHL’s top goaltender after posting a 23-8-6 record with five shutouts and a league-leading .924 save percentage, good to make Guelph one of the league’s most feared outfits just a year after winning the league title.
When he faced at least 35 shots in a game this season, Daws’ record stood at 9-1-4 – that’s a sign of a big-game goaltender that performs at a high level when the pressure is on. According to InStat hockey, Daws’ expected goals conceded among all his starts this season – including international contests – was 150, while his actual goals against was 109. That alone tells you just how important Daws was to the Storm, who went 5-4-1 with Daws out of the lineup for the World Junior Championship and 9-15-2 with Owen Bennett at the helm.
Of course, his career had its fair share of struggles. Of course, he was good, but quite unspectacular in his first two campaigns. He lost the starting job at the World Junior Championship after his meteoric rise to earn a roster spot and a late-breaking injury took him out of the CHL Top Prospects Game in January. But Daws has proven he can fight back from adversity (he turned a three-game personal losing streak post-WJC into a 9-1-3 run – one of the best of his career) and his raw ability is something teams spent the year focusing on.
Where he’ll land later this mon- sorry, whenever the draft actually happens, is still a mystery. Daws is the top-ranked goaltender in North America and considered by many to be the best option after Yaroslav Askarov. But was he good enough for a significant period of time to entice a scout to select him in the second round? The thing with goalies is that goaltenders are a total crapshoot in the draft. Dustin Wolf was arguably one of the top goalies for the 2019 selection process, but instead went 214th out of 217 players (the 22nd goaltender selected). Wolf went on to win the CHL’s goaltender of the year award this season and is expected to be the future of the Calgary Flames, but many teams seemed wary of his smaller 6-foot-0 frame. Don’t be shocked if Daws goes in the second round, but, again, drafting goaltenders can be a complete mystery.
Let’s take a closer look at Daws’ overall package:
D.O.B – December 20, 2000
Nationality – Canada
Draft Eligibility – 2020
Height – 6’4
Weight – 203 lbs
Position – Goaltender
Handedness – Left
Daws’ Style Of Play
Right off the bat, it’s clear that Daws’ aggressive defensive style with both glove hands are a big asset to his game. He’s nearly unbeatable on his glove side and he isn’t afraid to get his active blocker into action when it’s suitable. He uses his big frame to look past opponents and put himself into a position to succeed on a scoring chance, and his mobile glove hand does an admirable job in dealing with cross-ice passes.
With Daws’ solid frame, the Burlington, Ont. native has good leg strength that allows him to push from crease to crease and back and forth with ease. Specifically, he doesn’t allow many shots down low and covers the lower half almost perfectly on a point-blank opportunity, but he’s got the leg strength to push himself over for a rebound. He’s got the ideal quickness in the blue paint that teams want from a big goaltender, and since you can’t teach size, it’s good that he has the modern-day physical aspects teams are looking for.
Massive save for Nico Daws (@Storm_City) of the Canadian team!— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) December 26, 2019
Turned away Pinto's point shot and the Wahlstrom on the rebound. Daws has been really good after letting in a couple early! #WJC2020 #WorldJuniors2020 pic.twitter.com/eeqQmQk4hm
Speaking of his down-low coverage, Daws has a battler’s mentality – he spent the year proving doubters wrong, and his gameplay reflects that. He does a great job of sticking with the play when he appears down and out and doesn’t mind throwing his body around to just get a piece of a shot.
Daws does allow a bad goal from time to time, so the biggest adjustment is ensuring that he remains confident enough to keep his mind in the game. Don’t forget, Daws’ game has come a long way in the past year, from going from uncertain backup to OHL star. That’s not easy for any kid, and while he clearly handled the pressure impeccably, the adjustment to pro hockey in the near future will be another challenge for someone that had a slower development path. But that’s also one of the most intriguing things about him: like any other prospect that shows tremendous improvement in their draft year, how much farther can they go?
Another major aspect of Daws’ game is how he always seems willing to keep a play alive. If he gets a chance to do so, he’ll send a pass down the ice to a forward on a breakout or steer it safely to a defenseman behind the net. He’s an active puck-handler, and and with four assists (the most of any OHL goaltender this season), he’s got positive results to show for. That’s something that does translate well to the NHL, so that’s a nice touch.
In terms of having Toronto’s Frederik Andersen as a comparable (as listed below), it’s mainly how Daws doesn’t rely on a big frame to deflect pucks. Daws moves admirably in the crease and doesn’t waste his movements, rarely forcing himself too out of position. Like Andersen, Daws can handle a heavy workload and gives his team a chance to win most nights, and that’s the least you can ask for out of your No. 1 goaltender.
They key for Daws moving forward is to continue amassing starts and earning opportunities. If Guelph looks to go into a further rebuild mode next year, maybe the team looks to move the pending 20-year-old to a contender. At the very least, there will be a market for Daws regardless of where he plays, and that extra experience will be valuable. He has limited time as a starter, with his one season at the top getting cut short by this pandemic you’re likely aware of, so getting another 45-50 starts next year will be key.
Frederik Andersen, G, Toronto Maple Leafs
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stats from eliteprospects.com