Here is the first edition of Second City Hockey’s Road to the NHL Draft covering top prospects eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft in Montreal. Ian sits down with No. 1 North American ranked goalie Nico Daws, who won a gold medal at the 2020 World Junior Championship.
While junior players take pride in representing their host city’s during their Canadian Hockey League careers, most dream of one day playing on bigger pro stages, and many will at one time be ranked by Central Scouting in advance of each year’s NHL Draft.
Some are slam dunk picks who play out their draft year knowing their name will be called come June barring complete disaster, while others attempt to increase their value in subsequent years after having been overlooked by the NHL’s 31 general managers.
The CHL reveres itself as the world’s largest development hockey league, with 52 Canadian and eight American cities participating in the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League.
In fact, the CHL supplies more players to the National Hockey League than any other, accounting for more than 32 percent of all 217 players chosen by all 31 NHL clubs in 2019.
One of the best stories in junior hockey this season comes from Guelph, Ontario, where 19-year-old goaltender Nico Daws has taken full advantage of his first real opportunity to be a starter for the Storm.
Until a few months ago, Daws wasn’t really on anyone’s draft radar. Afforded a sparse amount of appearances in his rookie season, he served as the team’s backup in 2018-19, making spot starts and being called upon to try and salvage games that were getting out of hand in relief duty.
Still, he was a valued member of that championship squad, playing an important supporting role and dutifully helping his teammates remain sharp by always bringing it in practice.
This season has resulted in a true breakout, and Daws has become one of the best stories in junior hockey. Guelph lost a lot of high end talent after their championship run (including Blackhawks prospect Mackenzie Entwistle), and it was supposed that the Storm would begin the rebuilding process.
Enter Daws, who’s record of 13-3-1 and a .935 save percentage through 21 games allowed Guelph to reassess and stay the course with a playoff berth well within its grasp.
Not only that, but Daws played for and won gold with Team Canada at the 2020 World Junior Championship, and was named the top ranked North American goaltender in the final tabulation from Central Scouting.
Q: Is there anyone who helped you prepare for this season as you looked forward to the the 2020 Draft or is it something that wasn’t on your radar as you looked to improve on last year?
Daws: I think for sure opportunity is a big thing. I didn’t really have the opportunity in my last two years. If the opportunity was there the past two years, I don’t know if I could have pulled off what I have pulled off so far this year without the summer that I had. I lost 25 pounds, I did a lot or work on the ice and off the ice, got myself into a pro mentality — eating properly, training every day. Little things like that and it’s paid off a lot so far.
Q: Is there a NHL goalie that you try to model your technique after?
Daws: I always use Connor Hellebuyck. Big goalie, efficient around his crease. That’s kind of how I like to play my game. I like to play calm, just try to cut angles down, not do too much.
Q: Was there anything in particular about the World Junior experience that you think will help as you prepare to finish the season with the Storm and with the Draft coming up?
Daws: The big thing for me was the mental side of that tournament. There’s so much media, there’s so much pressure on you. You’ve got to be able to dial that in. It was definitely tough, it’s a hard thing to do — especially there, you’ve got a whole country watching you and cheering for you, watching your every move. They’re ready to pounce on you if you make a mistake so staying even keel is definitely one of the biggest things I took from that tournament.
Q: Was there a specific learning experience from how the tournament played out for you, or was it overall a positive experience?
Daws: It was pretty positive. It was unfortunate the way it ended for me (benched after a 6-0 loss to Russia in group play despite beating Team USA in the tournament opener). But if you would have told me in the summer that I would be competing in the World Juniors for Team Canada, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. So it’s one of those things you have to take with a grain of salt — it’s an incredible feeling to win a gold medal for your country no matter what role you have.
Q: Are there any areas of your game you’re focusing on improving over the rest of the season?
Daws: Definitely, I want to just keep being consistent, and my speed around the net. When you get to higher levels, you’ve got to be able to adapt, so if I can increase my speed here, it will pay off in the long run.
Q: Are there any lessons you can pass on to young goalies looking to live out their dream as you are?
Daws: Never giving up is the biggest thing I can say. Even in minor hockey, I got cut from Triple-A to Single-A twice. It’s one of those things where it’s pretty easy to just give up and pack it in. When I came here, I played eight games my first season, last year I played 20 games and don’t get drafted. Coming into my 19-year-old never starting before, it’s easy to throw in the towel and ride out your career, but I didn’t want to do that. I love hockey and I want to do it professionally, so not giving up is the biggest thing I can say.
Q: As the No. 1 ranked North American goalie, do you look ahead at NHL teams that might drafting a goalie, or is that not something you try to focus on?
Daws: No, definitely not. It’s nice to have the rating. I didn’t even see it at first. My Mom sent it to me ... she was more excited than I was. It’s cool but we’re only halfway through the season. I’m not really too worried about what’s happens with the Draft, I’m more worried about winning here. Any team that drafts me, I’ll be really honored.
Unfortunately, Daws was unable to play in the CHL Top Prospects game due to injury. He’s aiming to return to the Storm lineup soon to help end the team’s current seven-game losing streak.
Guelph currently sits sixth in the OHL’s Western Conference standings.
The 2020 NHL Draft will be June 26–27 at Bell Centre in Montreal.