by Alan Adams - Special to newyorkrangers.com
HELSINKI, Finland -- Nigel Dawes saw the opening, took it and as a result gave Team Canada the lead.
It was second minute of play in the World Junior Championship Semifinal game between Canada and the Czech Republic. The Canadians were looking to score first, to set the Czechs back on their heels a little but, when Dawes went to work.
When the Czech defense let up for an instant in their end, Dawes pounced on a loose puck and used his speed to split between the two defenders for a clear path to the Czech net. He scored on a low wrist shot to put Canada on the scoreboard en route to a 7-1 win.
Dawes may be one of the smallest forwards on Canada's National Junior Team, but he plays big. He's persistent in his pursuit of the puck; he reads the play well and never gives an inch regardless of the size of the opponent.
He's asked about his goals at the World Junior Championship, a 10-team tournament which features the top teen players in the world.
"Probably just to come out and have a good tournament and prove to myself and everyone else that I can play with the elite athletes," says Dawes, who was the Rangers' fifth choice, 149th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft after having a season of 47 goals and 92 points with Kootnay of the Western Hockey League.
"I know personally that I can but there have always been question marks about me concerning my size but I will just go out and prove people wrong."
When you're 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, people always question your size. Ask Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning or Steve Sullivan of the Chicago Blackhawks about how many times people have question their size, and then ask yourself what have they done in the NHL.
That's not saying Dawes will put up terrific offensive numbers like the two aforementioned pint-sized NHLers, but he's scored at the major junior level and he's shown he can score when he's playing against the world's best junior-aged players.
"I have been impressed with him. He is listed at 5-7 ½ but he doesn't look small," says Rangers Assistant General Manager and VP of Player Personnel Don Maloney. "He has a compact build and that was my first impression, that he is not as tiny as I had pictured him in my mind. He has a real nose for the net in the offensive zone and he has terrific good instincts."
There used to be very little room in the NHL for small players but that's changed over the years, especially since the league has cracked down on obstruction. Smallish players as a rule are fast and the league wants them to showcase their talents.
Dawes feels the obstruction crackdown works in his favor.
"It is changing towards my favor with the crackdown on obstruction and other people who have made it, the (Marty) St. Louis who have made it and are doing well. It helps my cause and I am happy to be in the Rangers organization and one day hopefully play for them.
"I am an offensive player,' he continues. "I have pretty good speed and I'm smart with the puck. I can find the open guy and I can put it in the net, too. I need to solidify my defensive game a little bit before I move on to the next level but I think I have been getting better every year. I just have to fill in the blank spots. I just have to find consistency in that and just work harder all the time. You have to be able to play at both ends of the ice or you will be a liability out there and people are not looking for that. You just have to keep working hard and I am pretty persistent on things so I think it will all come around."
Dawes is from Winnipeg and played all sports as a kid, but like a lot of Canadian kids hockey was at the top of the list.
When he was 16, his dream of playing in the NHL took him to Kootnay in the western province of British Columbia and it's been a great fit. The Kootnay Ice won the Memorial Cup (junior hockey's version of the Stanley Cup) in his first year and it's an experience he'll never forget.
"It was tough (moving away from home) and it wasn't the easiest thing. But we won the Memorial Cup that year so it was a long year but it was great. You meet new people and you form friendships that will last a lifetime."
Dawes keeps tabs on how the New York Rangers are faring and while he wants to step in and play next season, he knows there is not much chance of that.
"I'd like to be there but the way they are going now I would not be surprised if there is a big turnaround. They like bringing their young guys into their AHL system and bring them up if you are playing well. It is a step by step process and right now I am playing for a contract and that is my main goal.
"I want to play pro and if it is with the Rangers or in Hartford or in Charlotte you have to work your way up. There are still things I have to improve on."
Maloney sees a bright future for Dawes.
"I do not expect him to have a big growth spurt. But I think he has to get more power to his stride and that will be the issue to me - is he quick enough at his size?" says Maloney. "But those instincts he has in the offensive zone are tough to teach and you either have them or you don't. He reminds me on Tony Tanti from way back when and if there was a loose puck, all of a sudden that skating that might be average looked terrific because the instinct took over.
"But the way the game has been going he could fit in. I have modified my approach. Everybody wants big, big, big but the game's quickness now and energy . . . The one thing Nigel has is very quick feet and you look at Mike York and the success he has had. Mike is not a blazing fast player but the success he has had comes from being very smart and having excellent feet and I see that on Nigel too. He has terrific offensive instincts and excellent feet so who knows. He is young."
Dawes knows he'll have to overcome the size issue, but just ask anyone at the World Junior Championship whether size matters. The fact that Dawes is one of the 22 Canadians asked to represent his country in the World Junior Championship is an indication of his abilities.
"Everyone wants to signal out my size and it is something I have to keep over-coming every day and I always comes back to that, no matter what I do. Until I am actually there (in the NHL) I do not think it will go away but that is fine and I am accustomed to it. I just like to go out there and prove people wrong."
The last word goes to Maloney.
"Having the type of success he has had so far at this tournament, at this level, is impressive. I am thrilled so far."
And you really can't ask more from a prospect like Dawes, can you?DAWES WJC NOTES:
* Heading into Monday's Canada-USA gold medal game, Dawes is tied for third among all tournament players in scoring with eight points (four goals, four assists) in five games ... He is also tied for seventh among all players with four goals.RELATED WJC LINKS:
newyorkrangers.com WJC CoverageNHL.com WJC Coverage