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By Jason Shaya
It’s not often that history is on the line during the regular season; particularly in the month of November. Yet, the Comets found themselves in that situation when they stepped onto the ice at home on November 19th against the Charlotte Checkers. Winners of their previous 11 games, the Comets had a chance to do what no other team could in the AHL’s 85-year history: win 12 straight games to start the season.
In midst of the anxiety, excitement and fanfare was a 20-year-old rookie goaltender, Nico Daws. Most of the time, a team that is faced with a huge game goes with a veteran goalie who has been through the rigors of professional hockey. It’s ideal to have a guy in the crease who’s unphased by the pressure of big moments. The Comets didn’t have that luxury. Between goalie Akira Schmid and Daws, their combined age was 41 years old. That’s the same age as veteran Edmonton Oilers netminder Mike Smith who took the Oilers to the Western Conference Finals this season. But, watching Daws that night, it was hard to tell if his heart rate jumped above resting levels. He was calm and cool throughout the contest in front of a rabid, sold-out arena.
It was close to halfway through the game, and the Comets were down 1-0. In fact, they gave up an early goal which deflated an already nervous home crowd. But that was the last goal Daws and the Comets gave up. As the final seconds clicked down and Aarne Talvitie registered an empty net goal sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy, young goaltender Nico Daws was surrounded by his teammates, victorious. It was a big test of his young career and he passed making 23 of 24 saves.
Behind the strides Daws made was the work of goaltending coach Brian Eklund. A former pro goalie, Eklund put Daws and Schmid through their paces and helped guide two youngsters through the obstacles of a pro campaign. After the season, Eklund was effusive in his praise for Daws’ accomplishments and improvement, “Nico made so many strides from the start of the year to the finish. Some of the biggest improvements laid in the pace of play. Coming from Juniors and the DEL (the top German professional league). He had to learn the pace of professional hockey in North America,” said Eklund. “In the DEL they play on Olympic size ice and here in North America, the ice is much smaller so, plays happen quickly... There are fewer shots from the perimeter of the rink and more happens in the middle. So, that pace at which plays happen is a major adjustment. He did an amazing job of learning this pace and learning to read players away from the puck to anticipate plays better. This is something that takes goalies years to be able to learn typically, but he made major strides throughout the season which led to a lot of his success at the NHL and AHL level this season.”
To Daws’ credit, he already was able to navigate a significant moment in his career less than a month earlier. Like the record setting game inside the Adirondack Bank Center, this one was another regular season contest. This game had a more personal meaning—his first NHL career start. With his characteristic poise, Daws proved why he is considered a top goaltending prospect in a 25 save victory against the Sabres. It was a glimpse into what many people believe is to come from Daws.
Every athlete goes into the off-season looking to build on the previous year. Nico knows there is room to grow and improve. The best thing for Nico is, he has plenty of time to hone his skillset.
“I’m happy with how the regular season went, I think in Utica my confidence really grew throughout the year and I’m excited to get back next year and try to be a top goalie in the league,” said Daws. “I think with New Jersey I was okay, some good games and some not so good games. At the end of the day, it was a year of learning for me and now I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, and it gives me a good plan on what to work on this summer and where I need to take my game. I can’t wait to get back at it.”
As the 2022-23 season approaches, Daws’ great moments last year proved he has the physical and mental characteristics of a future NHL goaltender who is capable to guiding his team through crucial games. It’s a learning process and goaltenders know, they never stop learning. The AHL continues to be a school for some of the best netminders in the NHL. Nico Daws is taking the lessons he learned as he gears up for another test of a pro campaign next season.