BREAKOUT PLAYER OF THE SEASON

OAKVILLE, ONT. – Nico Daws wasn’t invited by Canada to the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan this past summer. He played only 20 games as a draft-eligible prospect last season and with the OHL’s Guelph Storm expected to spend 2019-20 rebuilding,  Daws’ potential was truly unknown.

So, naturally, Daws has put an absolute beating on the rest of the OHL and enters Canada’s WJC selection camp with a chance to be the team’s starting goaltender. Just like everyone planned.

Daws was the 16th North American-ranked goalie by the NHL Central Scouting Service for 2019, but he wasn’t one of the 22 netminders selected. So he turned his focus back to Guelph, entering the season not knowing what the situation in net would be. That became clear when the Storm moved veteran Anthony Popovich to Flint in September, allowing Daws to finally take the reins. Storm fans were eager to see what Daws could do with a young, rebuilding franchise. Nobody, not even the smartest scouts, could have seen Daws entering Canada’s selection camp with a 13-2-4 record, .941 save percentage and four shutouts through 19 contests, making him the favorite to win the OHL’s goaltender of the year title.

“I think I had a good summer,” Daws said. “Backing up for a couple of years before, I knew I had to have a breakout year this year and prove I belong and I’m a good goaltender.”

Making Canada’s world junior selection process wasn’t something that was on Daws’ radar beforehand. He has never been in Hockey Canada’s system before. Compare that to Olivier Rodrigue, who, outside of goalie camps, has represented Canada at every major tournament, starting with the Youth Olympic Games in 2016. That meant that despite having an award-worthy season in the OHL, Hockey Canada had a bigger book on a few other drafted goalies at camp that were also having great years. In theory, you’d think he might feel a bit of pressure to perform. Besides, making the world junior team would really help his draft stock. But does it bother him?

“Honestly, not too much,” Daws said. “Being a guy, undrafted, having never played for Team Canada before, it’s not really much pressure. Everybody’s kind of not really expecting anything from you.”

His hard work has earned praise from his teammates, including his closest competition. “He had the opportunity with the starting job and he grabbed the ball and ran with it,” said Peterborough’s Hunter Jones, who shares a goalie coach with Daws. “He’s doing really well for himself, developed his game, got a bit older and he’s just letting the puck come to him.”

After a few months of stellar play in Guelph, Daws was named to the OHL’s roster for the CHL-Russia Series in November. Daws stopped all 13 shots he faced in the half-game he split with Cedrick Andree, at which point Daws believed he actually had a chance to make Canada’s roster for the big event in December.

“I didn’t really think about it until I got the call,” Daws said. “I mean, it wasn’t until probably the Canada-Russia series, that’s when I started thinking about it. Coming into this year, I really didn’t have any expectations like that. I just wanted to be a proven starter.”

And that he is. With Canada’s crease situation wide open, Daws has been hot at the right time. In short tournaments, it’s ideal to bring the guy playing at the top of his game, even if that trumps experience.

“It’s really hard to score on him,” said Cole Perfetti, one of the best goal-scorers heading into the 2020 draft. “He deserves to be here. He’s one of the best goalies. He’s playing numbers in the OHL which proves he’s one of the four best goalies in Canada right now.”

The next step this season is the 2020 draft, and there’s no way Daws gets passed over this time. It’s one thing to be an older goalie in the OHL exploding on the scene late, but this was Daws’ first opportunity to show what he’s capable of. He spent the bulk of his career learning behind a veteran in Popovich, allowing him to grow as a goaltender. But for now, making the world junior team is the goal for the young man from Burlington, Ont. – a goal he never thought was possible even three months ago.

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