In their 20-year history, the Ottawa Senators haven't drafted very many goaltenders. Surprisingly, Ottawa's drafting success in terms of goaltenders is higher than average, but that hasn't taken too much success: Slightly more than half of the Ottawa Senators goaltending prospects have played a single game in the NHL, and about a quarter have played more than 50 games.
Although we usually hear plenty about the players who move towards professional hockey, the prospects who can't take that step usually fall off the radar. Ryan Daniels is a prospect in the latter category.
Daniels, a goaltending prospect drafted by the Senators in the fifth round (151 overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, entered a Senators system which was thirsting for goaltending prospects. He had decent numbers in the OHL and, after attending (and being released without contract from) a few Senators development camps, he finished out his major junior career. Without a contract from the team that drafted him, Daniels became an unrestricted free agent, and gave pro hockey another shot on a tryout contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. After being released from the Thrashers, Daniels had a choice to make. He chose Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey, taking advantage of the CHL's scholarship program to play for the Wilfrid Laurier University Golden Hawks in Waterloo, Ontario.
To find out how Daniels has been doing, I contacted Jamie Neugebauer, the men's hockey beat writer at The Cord, the student newspaper at Sir Wilfred Laurier University. As much as we hear about top prospects, it's easy to forget about the other players drafted; Neugebauer's account of Daniels' decisions and career so far offer us a glimpse into an atypical avenue for drafted hockey prospects. His article is printed in full below.
With their fifth pick, 151 overall in the fifth round of that 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the Sens selected goaltender Ryan Daniels. Coming off of a strong season backing up Francois Thuot in Saginaw, the big Pickering native with great poise and technical strength had big things in mind for his future.
"My impression of Ryan Daniels is that he is a big goalie that takes advantage of his size while being able to move well, and stay in good position," his current Assistant Coach, and former teammate Jeff MacDougald said. "He always finds a way to make the first save."
The year after being drafted, he played a remarkable 60 games for the Spirit, posting 38 wins and a save percentage of .907 in the 2006-07 season.
Nevertheless with the dominance of 24-year-old Ray Emery that season, a new contract issued to Martin Gerber, and prospects Jeff Glass and Brian Elliot filling out the Senators' goaltending depth chart, Daniels wasn't tendered a contract.
Even after two prospect camps with the Sens, and a strong 2007-08 OHL season, the 6-foot-1, 200lb puck stopper could not get his break. Scouts questioned his tendency to over-anticipate plays and his inability to cut down angles against professional level shooters. While they praised his reflexes, and glove hand, his mental game was a major reason Daniels seemed to hit a ceiling.
After a disappointing 2008-09 season that saw him moved to Peterborough in the off-season to play behind the massive Montreal prospect Jason Missiaen, Daniels chose one route that's become increasingly attractive to major-junior graduates: He elected to play CIS hockey for the Golden Hawks of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
"I took it hard, and at the time I definitely saw it as a step in the wrong direction," Daniels said, reflecting on his decision. "That is just the competitor in me. I am enrolled business here, and I have nothing bad to say about that program; but from a hockey sense I definitely saw it as a step back from where I wanted to be."
In his first season in the purple and gold jersey of Wilfrid Laurier, Daniels was inconsistent on a run-and-gun team that scored plenty of goals, but allowed plenty, too (to the tune of 121 goals for and 97 goals against in a 28-game regular season). In 14 appearances, he had a record of 7-6, with a .914 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 3.38. It was clear that he could play in this league, but was unclear was whether he could dominate in it.
"It seems as though playing at the university level has allowed [Daniels] to mature as a person and a goaltender," said MacDougald, who was himself once a promising OHL goaltending prospect who took his game to the CIS. "Goalies often develop at a later age than players typically do, and I think playing at this level has allowed Ryan to mould himself into a top goaltender in this league."
With MacDougald's graduation two years ago, Daniels took over as the Hawks' number one netminder. He didn't falter.
"I've been given every opportunity a goalie could ask for this year," Daniels said. "They have played pretty well in front of me for the most part this year, but the thing I can really attribute [my success this year] to is confidence from my coach, and going out there to do the best that I can."
This past season Daniels started all 28 games for the Hawks, and played all but 17 minutes in net. Among CIS goaltenders, Daniels had the third-best save percentage (.929), eleventh-best GAA (2.52), the most saves made (926).
"Ryan had a great season this year and was the backbone to our program having the success we did," Coach MacDougald continued. "He has become stronger mentally over the last 2 seasons and the fact that he played all 28 games for us this season speaks to that development."
Daniels was indeed very important to the Hawks success. Laurier earned a record of 15-7-6 with a team that iced 15 freshmen or sophomores. Daniels guided his team to second in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Western Conference and past the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in the conference quarter-finals. Although they were beaten in the conference semi-finals to a spirited Guelph team, Daniels took home enough hardware to fill a large display case: OUA First-Team All-Star, OUA West Division First-Team All-Star, OUA Outstanding Goaltender, OUA West Division MVP, and OUA West Division Goaltender of the Year.
Daniels looks specifically to three NHL all-star goaltenders for inspiration.
"You look at a guy like Carey Price, who has mentally overcome much criticism in Montreal, and you look at a guy like Tim Thomas who has showed nothing but resilience to get to where he's at. Then you look at [Roberto] Luongo who plays great in big games, and gives them a chance to win every night."
At the training camps in Ottawa and Atlanta, Daniels was criticized for not having the mental strength to be a professional goaltender, and is out--like Price--to prove the critics wrong. Like Thomas, he was also criticized for lacking the technical ability to be an effective professional goaltender, and he has been and plans to continue working on his technical game with the Hawks. And like Luongo, who played the biggest games for the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team and plays all the big games for Cup-contending Canucks, Ryan Daniels will have to continue to be Laurier's shining star for the purple and gold to make any noise over the next few years.
"The reason for his success this year is simple: dedication and confidence," MacDougald concluded. "Ryan came into the year wanting to be on the ice for every minute of every game, not wanting to have a night off, and as his game started to get hot he simply ran with it and his confidence snowballed."
Ryan Daniels has followed an unconventional route in trying to become a professional hockey player. But by continuing to improve in all aspects of his game, he may still get that opportunity.