Rookie Dawes blossoming with Wolf Pack

by Russ Cohen ||

When the New York Rangers drafted Nigel Dawes in the fifth round of the 2003 Entry Draft all eyes were on their first-round pick, Hugh Jessiman, and very few even raised an eyebrow when Dawes’ name was called.

But Dawes has proven to be more than just a name called over the public-address system at the draft. Dawes really made a name for himself in 2005. He was a big reason why Team won the World Junior Championship, scoring six points and six penalty minutes in six games. The stocky left winger also had the second highest goal total in the Western Hockey League with 50 in ’05 and he has already scored over 30 goals in his first full season with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL.

At 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, it would have been nearly impossible for a player like Dawes to play in the old clutch-and-grab NHL, but now the league is really open to smaller players and the speed of the game makes it possible for player of smaller stature to live out their dream.

Has Dawes noticed the difference?

"Definitely," he said with exuberance. "You can see it already this year. I think it plays into my hands."

The coaching staff in Hartford has been impressed with the Winnipeg native. He gets plenty of ice time and he plays on the power play and penalty kill too. Dawes excels with the extra attacker on the ice because he can use his speed to break into the zone and his wide body is tough to move out of the crease. He is a 21-year-old who knows how to score in traffic with a very quick shot. But he also is adept at setting up a linemate with a pass right on the tape.

"He has been a steady customer here for us," said Wolf Pack assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson.

Dawes is an energy player like a Jordin Tootoo or Theo Fleury. He can get a team jump-started with a great body check against the boards.

"I’ve never been the kind of player to shy away from the physical game," Dawes said. "It’s part of the game and the way that I play."

When Dawes was in Kootenay, he was a member of the Memorial Cup winning team in 2002. In 2004, he won the Brad Hornung Trophy for most sportsmanlike player. By the time the 2004-05 season was finished there, he led the team in goals and points (76 points in 63 games).

He is a character guy and there is a reason he has been on some championship teams. He’s a good teammate. When the Wolf Pack re-acquired forward Brad Smyth, he had a five-point game in his return and he gave some credit to Dawes who helped him get his first assist with his new club.

"Dawes made a nice move around the net," said Smyth, the all-time leading scorer for the Wolf Pack.

The Rangers have a lot of centers in their system, but not as many left wingers. The Blueshirts have had a very successful 2005-06 campaign, yet if they had an injury at Dawes’ position it wouldn’t be a reach to call him up to see if he could perform at the next level. Sure, his role would change and he would likely play on the fourth line, but it’s the versatile players that get called up a lot faster these days.

"Anytime you go to a new team your role is going to change a bit," Dawes said.

Dawes has another talent that is very valuable in today’s NHL. He can score in shootout situations. He was 2-for-2 in the early going at Hartford, including a game-winner. He also had a streak of three consecutive two-goal games that helped him get the CCM Vector/AHL Player of the Week honors back in January.

Being one of the league leaders in plus/minus is something else that can put him on the fast track to New York, possibly as early as next season.

Now that the Rangers are a playoff contender, as well as Hartford, Dawes has a track record of being a solid playoff performer. He had 45 points in 49 postseason games with Kootenay. Now that doesn’t mean he will be one of the team’s top scorers in a Calder Cup run for the Pack or for the Rangers in the future, but it’s a surely a good sign that he should feel pretty comfortable.

If you get a chance to see the Hartford Wolf Pack pay special attention to No. 9 because he won’t be there for long.