CALGARY — Nigel Dawes was pencilled in among the Calgary Flames’ top six forwards to open the NHL season.
It’s up to the 24-year-old from Winnipeg to make his name a more permanent fixture there.
“I think for me to play my best and do what I can do in this league, I need to be in the top six and play some power play,” Dawes said Thursday prior to the season-opener versus Vancouver. “With other teams I really don’t think I had that opportunity, whether I wasn’t given it or I just wasn’t deserving it. ”
“Here, I’m given that opportunity and it’s up to me to make sure that I take full advantage of it.”
The Flames opened the season with Dawes on their second line playing left wing for centre Daymond Langkow and right-winger Rene Bourque. Dawes was, at least initially, going to get the minutes and responsibility he craved.
Calgary claimed Dawes off waivers from Phoenix in July and signed him to a two-year, US$1.7-million contract.
He’s a small, but solid forward at five foot eight and 190 pounds. Dawes was a 50-goal scorer with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice and the league MVP in 2004-05, so he has offensive upside.
His size, speed and skill indicates goalscoring and playmaking should be his calling card in the NHL, but he has yet to establish that as his role.
Drafted in the fifth round by the New York Rangers in 2003, he’s accumulated 25 goals and 26 assists in 133 career games with the Rangers and Coyotes.
The Rangers dealt him, Petr Prucha and Dimitri Kalinin to Phoenix on March 4 for defenceman Derek Morris. Dawes had two assists in 12 games with Phoenix and when he entered salary arbitration in the summer, the Coyotes opted to put him on waivers.
Dawes no longer wants to be a bit player on an NHL club.
“I don’t think Phoenix was really the fit for me and I was happy to get this opportunity with Calgary,” he said. “When you break into the league, you’re trying to feel things out. But right now, the time is now. ”
“You’re not getting any younger and your opportunities can get less and less.”
He played for Flames head coach Brent Sutter in the 2005 world junior hockey championships in Grand Forks, N.D., and helped Canada win the gold medal there. He also won a Memorial Cup under Flames assistant coach Ryan McGill in 2002 with the Ice.
Dawes had the advantage of coming to training camp with a new team knowing what the coach’s philosophy and expectations would be.
“I really like how I fit in here, just with the guys and the style that Brent has,” Dawes said. “He makes sure that everyone pays attention to detail. ”
“He’s a very strict coach but if you play within the system and work hard, he definitely rewards guys like that. I think I can really thrive under this system. ”
“He really holds everyone accountable and personally I know that’s something I need and probably the whole team is going to benefit from.”
Dawes had a goal and four assists in six pre-season games. Sutter characterized his play as ”decent” and expects more of him.
“To be a top six forward in the National Hockey League, you’ve got to play with a high level of emotion and intensity every night and you’ve got to want to do it and go out and do it,” Sutter said. “That’s where we’re at with Nigel. ”
“He’s got to show it game in and game out. He’s capable of doing that.”
While he’s begun the season among Calgary’s top half-dozen forwards, the Flames can’t be too patient for him to produce.
“That’s where he fits at this point in time, but his play is going to determine whether it’s status quo or it changes,” Sutter said.