By Dan Hickling
Special to newyorkrangers.com
In hockey, you have forwards of many different descriptions.
Some can skate, some can finish, and some can dish out a timely lick.
And then there is Nigel Dawes. He can do all three.
The dynamic first-year left wing showed that by scoring 35 goals and 32 assists for the Hartford Wolf Pack while earning his stripes as one of the top rookies in the American Hockey League in 2005-06.
He also earned the respect of opposing coaches, such as Kevin Dineen of the Portland Pirates.
Dineen said that he heard plenty about Dawes just as the season was getting started.
"(Anaheim GM) Brian Burke said he was one of the better juniors he'd seen play," said Dineen, "so we knew he had some special talent. He's one of those guys who is effective most times he's on the ice."
Dawes, a fifth-round pick by the New York Rangers in the 2004 draft, has always been a prolific scorer. He popped in 144 goals in his last three seasons with the Kootenay Ice (WHL), including an even 50 in 2004-05, his final season there.
But translating a stellar junior career into success at the American Hockey League level is more easily said than done. And even though he sewed up a spot in the Wolf Pack lineup when the team broke training camp, Dawes said he had the usual rookie butterflies.
"Anytime you come into a new league," he said, "you don't know what to expect. You just play as well as you can, and once you get comfortable, you just try to play better game in and game out, and try to get that consistency."
After a slow start, Dawes caught fire in January, tallying 10 times while recording three multi-goal games in a row. He finished the season as the AHL's second leading rookie goal-getter, trailing only Houston's Patrick O'Sullivan, the league's rookie of the year.
"Adjusting to the speed (was key)," he said. "Everything's a little faster, so you have to come in and get comfortable. Once you get that, it's just hockey. I don't think I had to change my game that much.
"Once you get comfortable you just go back to what you've been doing, and what's gotten you here. I think over the year that's what I've done. Now, it's just a matter of tuning up some little things that need working on. Whether it be in the D zone or the forecheck. Personally I've tried to do that throughout the year."
Along the way, he's managed to adopt a physical edge to his game. Opposing forwards have had to learn not to skate with their head down while Dawes is on the ice.
"He plays hard," said Dineen. "He hits guys when they're not ready."
Even with his sensational success in his first year, Dawes knows the next level will require even more of him. And he plans to put in the work necessary to make that step.
"I think I've just got to improve on a couple of things," he said. "Try to get a quicker first and second step, and (get) some top-end speed. I think the biggest thing is just consistency. You have to go in there and perform night in and night out.
"I think if you can do that, there's a chance you can make the (next) step. You have to be able to play all over the ice. I think I've improved my consistency, (but) I've just got to keep playing, and producing offensively. Then go into camp next year in good shape."