The beautiful sound of pucks hitting the glass echoed throughout RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House at Prudential Center as New Jersey Devils goaltenders Nico Daws, Tyler Brennan, and Cole Brady stepped onto the ice for drills during the team’s development camp this past week. They rotated in and out of the crease as the coaching staff took turns shooting the puck on goal.
Devils fans became familiar with the 21-year-old Daws, as he was one of seven individuals who spent time in the crease last season. Injuries forced the team to fully embrace the next man up mentality, and no position was plagued more than goaltending. The rookie netminder appeared in a season-high 25 games with the big club including nine straight appearances back in March.
The 6-foot-4 Munich native made his league debut on Oct. 23, 2021, at Prudential Center against the Buffalo Sabres. That night he earned his first NHL win posting a .960 save percentage, making 24 stops. I caught up with Daws during the Devils’ development camp to talk about his whirlwind of a season and the moment it sunk in that he was playing in the NHL.
“It was crazy. It took a few games [to hit me that I’m playing in the NHL]. It is like when we played Pittsburgh and playing against [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin scored on me and I was like oh my god,” he said with a laugh.
Daws’ Unexpected Rookie Campaign
It was Jacques Plante who once said, “goaltending is a normal job, sure. How would you like it in your job if every time you made a small mistake, a red light went on over your desk and 15,000 people stood up and yelled at you.”
There is no denying it is a high-pressure position, and mental toughness is a necessary characteristic for the individual standing in the crease. The length and often success of a goaltender’s career are dependent on their ability to remain calm and composed for a full 60 minutes, regardless of how many bad goals they allow. Daws got his first taste of the NHL and when I asked him how he handled the mental aspect of the game, he admitted that it wasn’t easy.
“Yeah, It’s tough. I mean as a young goaltender you want to develop, but you’re also at a point where you need to stop thinking about developing and try to win the game. So it’s kind of tough to balance the two. It was probably the hardest part.”
Throughout the 2021-22 season, the Devils were desperate to find consistent goaltending. The organization lost Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier to injury, Scott Wedgewood to waivers and were left rotating Daws, Akira Schmid, Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond through the crease. It was a difficult situation for any goaltender to be in, especially one who was still looking to develop his game, but at the end of the day, it was a learning experience.
“I think it was good for me to kind of learn that I think I have what it takes. It’s just a matter of being able to get there and stay there.”
Devils’ Development Camp and Looking Ahead
This past week was the first time Daws participated in the team’s development camp and he told me that he was simply trying to work hard and enjoy himself. Like the rest of the guys who were at Prudential Center this past week, he was looking to show the staff that he’s been putting in a lot of good progress. I asked him how important it was to connect with the guys in the middle of the summer.
“It’s definitely good. You see all the new draft picks and all the guys who haven’t been to development camp and it’s good to get to know everybody. You’re probably going to be playing together at some point so you gotta be friends.”
During development camp, the players worked on and off the ice and partook in a community event, before concluding the week with an afternoon scrimmage. During the team’s 2019 development camp, the guys took a trip to Whole Foods with nutritionist Brad Schoenfeld to further educate the young players on how to properly take care of themselves. I asked Daws if he enjoyed cooking for himself and learned he actually has a specialty.
“I cook a really good steak,” he said with a smile. “My dad used to be a chef, so growing up he would do a lot of catering at home and he would make me help. He taught me a lot stuff over the years.”
For those who are wondering, he completes his steak dinner with sweet potatoes and asparagus.
It appears the plan for Daws next season is to remain in Utica to further develop and work on his game. After a rollercoaster of a campaign, he understands where he consistently needs to keep his game and is looking forward to working with the staff in 2022-23.
“It will be nice to be in Utica to work with Akira and Brian [Eklund]. They are great and we get along really well, so it will be good. We will be able to push ourselves all year.”
Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald addressed his team’s goaltending needs during draft weekend by making a deal with the Washington Capitals to bring goaltender Vitek Vanecek to New Jersey. For the third summer in a row, the organization feels comfortable with their tandem but if history has taught us anything, it is that plans go awry. The good news is, that Daws got a taste of what it takes to win at the NHL level and if called upon, is coming to Prudential Center with more experience and comfort in the position.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.