The odds were never really in Nico Daws favor.
If you followed his path prior to turning pro, you remember just how unlikely of a candidate he was to ever get this far - the skill was there, but the tangible results weren't. Prior to 2019-20, Daws had just 34 games played over two seasons with the Guelph Storm before eventually earning the starting role. Daws was incredible, posting a 23-8-6 record en route to the league's goaltender of the year award and a spot on Canada's World Junior Championship gold medal effort. Not too shabby for someone who seemingly wasn't on Hockey Canada's radar in a meaningful fashion before that.
Undrafted in his first year of eligibility, Daws eventually went to the New Jersey Devils in 2020. With COVID-19 preventing him from returning to the OHL for a fourth season, Daws played 10 games with ERC Ingolstadt in the top men's German league behind starter Michael Garteig to mixed results.
Daws made his North American pro debut on Sunday, Oct. 17 with AHL Utica, a 25-save performance in a 6-2 win over the Rochester Americans. But his start in the top development league didn't last long: with Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier out of action, the big club in New Jersey needed Daws immediately.
The Burlington, Ont. native came up huge in his NHL debut, a 2-1 overtime win against Buffalo with his family in attendance. The Devils played far from great, but Daws put on a show, making a handful of key saves late in the game to secure the two points. Daws became just the fourth Devils goaltender to win in his debut, with Scott Wedgewood, Daws' goalie partner on Saturday, being the last to do so.
"I'm speechless right now," Daws said after the win.
Daws, a 6-foot-4 puckstopper, has emerged as a viable NHL goaltending option for the future in such a short time. Just as things were picking up and Daws was playing at the top of his game, the COVID-19 shutdown prevented Daws from helping Guelph go for an OHL title - and potentially do even more in his final junior season.
Many of his old coaches believed in him from the start. But Daws cut 20 pounds from his frame and finally was given a shot for a Storm team in need of good goaltending support. Daws didn't disappoint. So the strong start to his North American pro career isn't overly surprising, given just how unstoppable he was before the world stopped spinning in March of 2020.
"When he got hot, he got hot," a junior scout said. "Few goalies over the past five years could dominate a game like he did in his final year. Total 180 from when we first saw him."
Once Daws cut the weight, you could see a difference. Daws was quicker, slimmer and an overall tougher presence to beat post-to-post. He still has the size to intimidate and his glove hand has only gotten better over time. Daws doesn't seem fazed by bad goals, either, something that seemed to bother him at a younger age.
It wasn't that Daws wasn't capable of big games in his early years, and you expect younger goaltenders to be pushed back in favor of older, more experienced options. Many saw Guelph fan-favorite Anthony Popovich as a good mentor for Daws during his time there. But Daws was the 16th-ranked North American goaltender in his first year of eligibility, so even NHL scouts didn't feel too highly about him. That all changed a year later.
Daws came prepared when it mattered most for the Devils. And despite having a strong goalie duo in Blackwood and Bernier, the team needed its depth to shine in the early stages of what has already been a black-and-blue start for the club, physically.
"I had a really good summer and came in really prepared for camp," Daws said. "I was happy with how camp went and management was, too. To get called up is an honor, definitely didn't see it coming."
No kidding, especially after serving as a backup for a German-league team just a few months prior. And how were the nerves, playing at home in front of a fanbase full of hope amidst off-season changes designed to put the Devils back into the playoffs for just the second time since making the Cup final in 2012?
"I don't think I ever felt uncomfortable at all," Daws said. "Obviously, nerves in the first couple minutes of the game, legs were a bit shaky, but that's to be expected. First NHL game. It's a big crowd, not really used to that. But after I got a few shots and made a few saves, I got to calm down."
Once New Jersey's main duo returns, Daws will be returned back to Utica and get a good chunk of the starts as the Devils' top goaltending prospect. Wedgewood should be the team's at-call third goaltender to allow Daws the chance to continue improving against pro-level players, and there's no rush in moving the 20-year-old too far up in his development.
But for now, it's all about the celebration. Spencer Knight (April 19, 2001, 20 years old) is the only goalie younger than Daws to get a start this season. In his post-game interview, Daws summed up his debut in a simple fashion: "Things happen fast."
Well, Nico, that sums up your rise to the big leagues quite nicely. Now you're an NHL game-winning goaltender.