For years, the blue paint in Ontario Hockey League rinks has been no country for young men.
That can make it challenging for 17-year-olds in their draft year to get noticed.
But Guelph Storm goaltender Nico Daws said he’s better able to deal with uncertainty in this sophomore season.
“I struggled with it a lot last year at the beginning of the year,” Daws admitted. “That was one thing — not knowing if you’re going, or even just knowing the day of, that’s something I really had to get used to. Now I don’t think about it. This year, especially, I prepare every game like I’m playing.”
A year older and wiser in the OHL has afforded Daws additional perspective on his position, which has translated in a more mature approach between the pipes.
“I think I have a lot more confidence in net,” he said. “Obviously last year, I didn’t play a lot — maybe one start a month. I never really knew when I was going to go in. But this year, I came in — not really expecting it — but knowing how to deal with it. I’m a lot more confident in my game this year and I know what it takes to be a good goalie in this league, and a starter. I’m just trying to prove that I can be one.”
As a rookie last year, Daws finished with a 1-7-1-1 record in 14 games.
This year, he has appeared in 10 games, with a 3-5-0-2 record with a 4.20 goals against average and an .875 save percentage behind 19-year-old Anthony Popovich, who participated in 60 games last year and has been between the pipes for 30 games already this season.
Storm coach and general manager George Burnett said he understands that it can be challenging for young goaltenders — especially in their draft years — to get the exposure.
But that opportunity has to be earned and Burnett said he’s seen solid growth in Daws’ approach not only during games, but also in preparing for them.
“It’s partly our responsibility and partly his to play well to earn the opportunities to be in the net and keep the net,” Burnett said. “It’s not easy for a young goaltender when he’s playing behind a veteran guy who carries the bulk of the load, but he’s been much better this year. He’s been much more consistent, he’s worked hard, he’s much better shape, and I think he’s much more prepared to take the net.
“We’ve called on him in the middle of some games, he’s come in and been outstanding, and he’s had some good starts.
“He continues to work hard. think he realized last year the type of work that’s required and I think he’s a lot further along in his development path. It is hard when you’re not playing a lot, but I think he’s trying to make the most out of the starts he has. His practice habits are better this year as well.”
Draft chatter has been quiet on Daws to this point.
And while he’s only appeared in approximately a quarter of the Storm’s games, he’s doing his best to make those minutes memorable.
“I just try to make the most of my minutes,” he said. “Whether I’m getting as many as I’d like or not, it doesn’t really matter — every time I get to go, I try to give it my all. I think it can be frustrating if you let it get to you. But when it comes down to it, I’ll be 19 one day. I just have the make the most of the minutes I get now and hope that I can turn into one of those 19-year-old starters.
“For me, I just try to work as hard as I can in practice. Obviously in games, I don’t want to make the decision easy for [Burnett]. I want to make him think twice about it. Whether he gives me the starts or doesn’t, at least he’s thinking about me.”
That’s the attitude Burnett is looking for.
Even if Daws doesn’t get the call top lay in the game, he wants his netminder to keep pushing for those opportunities.
“I’ve said to him when you get the net and you play well, make it real tough for me not to give you the net the next night,” Burnett explained. “I think there’s been nights where he’s played back-to-back games, and that’s not easy to do when you have an accomplished guy, but I want him to put pressure on that guy for the net, for his ice time, and for his opportunity, and I think he’s a lot closer to being able to do that than he was a year ago.”
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 223 pounds, Daws has that prototypical size that NHL teams are looking for.
And while Daws prefers not to focus on his height, he knows it offers him an advantage.
“It definitely helps to be big. I don’t want to focus on it too much, but it’s one of those things you can’t teach,” he said. “Size helps, but when it comes down to it, it may not be the make-or-break — you have to be good at everything else.
“On-ice, I’ve really been trying to work on my lateral speed. You know, big guy — trying to get across the net as fast as I can. When the shot’s coming straight on, it’s not too hard for me because I take up most of the net, but side-to-side it’s harder for me.”
Off the ice, Daws said he’s been focusing on the mental side of the game, working with the tema’s mental skills coach Dr. Ashwin Patel.
Daws’ size and skill has served to — and will continue to — attract attention.
“Those that are interested and intrigued by his size and his athleticism — he has a lot of intangibles that NHL people are looking for. His practice habits are improved steadily,” Burnett said.
“I think the key for him is to make sure that the competitive situations in practice when he’s not playing a lot are strong so that he can use that as game-like situations, and I think everything’s been positive in that sense with him throughout the first half of the season.”