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Nathan Lawson (AKA Nate the Great)

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The following article was written for NHL.com when Lawson was to make his NHL debut last season.  I’ve decided to tweak it, and run it on my own blog after Lawson played his first NHL exhibition game last night.

 

Nathan Lawson has given me more “is this guy serious?” moments than Flava Flav, starting with his first recruiting trip when he told me “It says Nate the Great on my helmet for a reason.” 

Lookin' sharp in the Seawolves gear

Lookin' sharp in the Seawolves gear

That was the first time I’ve seen his smirk – the “I’m aware that sounded ridiculously cocky, so I’m smirking to show that I’m aware of that… but it doesn’t mean I don’t mean it”  smirk.

I’ve shaken my head in disbelief, and spent more time discussing his on-ice antics than it ever took for him to perform them.  From the three years we spent as teammates in college to the one together as professionals, the guy has been a constant conversation piece.

The University of Alaska Anchorage has always had great goaltending.  Being comparatively under-talented in the WCHA has meant that the Seawolves have needed strength in net to stay competitive.  So when Nathan Lawson committed to our school, it meant big expectations on the kid.  And he exceeded them.

“Laws” is a bit quirky, as goalies tend to be.  And when I say quirky, I mean borderline nuts (but in a light-hearted, happily neurotic sort of way).  Watch him in pre-game warm-ups.  Some guys have routines, Lawson has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Upsetting his pre-game routine is dangerous and ill-advised.  He’ll de-friend you in real life like its Facebook. 

To start the game, and before every period, he skates to the bench, takes his helmet off and stares straight ahead.  While looking completely crazy (like there’s any other way to do this), he unscrews the lid on a water bottle, leans back and dumps the full contents over his head, helmet and glove, which is placed behind his head.  It’s similar to the Lebron James chalk throw, just with more crazy and less fanfare.

That pose, with good angles... frustrating as a shooter

That pose, with good angles... frustrating as a shooter

Lawson left college a year early to give the pro ranks a try.  I was playing for Utah in the ECHL at the time, and Nate was in Phoenix, our first opponent of the season.  One start and one shutout later, he was on his way.  But as a goalie, keeping a spot on professional teams is a totally different situation.  There’s only room for two per team, so in an NHL/AHL/ECHL organization, that means six goalie jobs.  When a seventh one comes in as part of an NHL deal, there’s a trickle-down effect.

The leap between the ECHL and AHL isn’t all that huge, and the gap between the AHL and NHL is even smaller. A thin line separates many players – and sometimes all it takes is one scout, one GM or one coach to push for a player and create the opportunity for them to thrive.  The line is even thinner for goaltenders, and sometimes the difference between a career-ending cut in the ECHL and making the NHL is that one opportunity.

In Utah, our coach called me early in the season and said “I see this Lawson kid is on waivers. Is he any good?”  After giving Lawson a review that Paula Abdul would call “too generous,” Nate was a Utah Grizzly. 

Nice highlights.

Nice highlights.

Like many others, all the guy needed was the right opportunity.  Nathan’s rookie season in Utah was solid, showing what many of us already knew – that he’s the real deal.  And he joined the Isles organization at the right time, with Rick DiPietro’s injuries the past couple seasons. An unfortunate part of minor league hockey is having to root for other people’s injuries to get your chance.

From that, the “trickle-up” effect gave Lawson the American League opportunity he deserved last season, and he capitalized on it.  In 31 games, Laws went 19-9 with a 2.16 goals-against-average and a .927 save percentage.  All-Rookie Team starter.  Not bad, right?

Even the Islanders seem confused about their situation in goal these days, but after signing Biron and Roloson, they remembered to sign Laws.  Had Bridgeport not needed him so badly during their stretch run last year, he probably would have seen NHL games – an odd reason to have to miss your chance at games in “the show”, really.

#52 - The guy's an original

#52 - The guy's an original

The reason Nathan Lawson is a stud in net is simply this:  He thinks ahead of the game.  Not in milliseconds, or seconds, but whole plays.  You can watch a Nathan Lawson goaltended game and think “Wow, he had an easy night.”  But it wouldn’t have looked that way had another tender been in net.  Other goalies are making diving glove says, Hasek-esque rolls and desperate scrambles.  Nate is square, up quick, and positional.  He’s usually so crisply controlled that he rarely needs to do anything SportsCenter worthy.

The nice part about Nate though, is that if he needs the spectacular save, it’s in his arsenal.  He has sharp post-to-post speed to go with his strongest attribute, his ability to play the puck.  Like Marty Turco of the Dallas, Nate is often used as a sixth defenseman; a guy to go back on dump-ins and make outlet passes.  He springs players on breakaways, and ices the puck on the penalty kill.

But fans will love his Sean Avery-like antics in the crease best. Lawson is the first goalie I’ve played with who can be a Darcy Tucker level agitator.  Teams love to hate him.  He is the uncompromising evil villain to them, and they can’t let it go.  Often, in college, we would talk to players on the opposing team after the game, maybe out at the bar, or just in the hallway.

In my beloved Isles colours. Trippy.

In my beloved Isles colours. Trippy.

“What was with that cross-check in my back?” is fine fodder for conversation, and everyone has a good laugh and lets it go. 

They can’t let go of Laws.  They don’t even want to let it go.  They’d ask:  “What’s he really like?  Is he actually that cocky?  He thinks he’s just the best doesn’t he?”

And Laws loves it.  He plays better when he’s fired up like that.  Guys crash his crease, spray him with snow, fall on him after whistles.  Laws dives when he gets clipped and hustles the refs between whistles.  His home fans adore him and opponent’s fans loathe him. 

Laws played in his first NHL exhibition game last night.  I have no doubt he’ll end up with 1,000 new fans and 10,000 new enemies around the league in no time.

NHL teams don’t like to take risks on players who aren’t drafted, partly because it reflects poorly on their scouts.  But this is a situation for somebody in the organization to look great, discovering a diamond in the rough.  If Laws gets enough games to get comfortable in those Islander colors, I’d bet Isles fans would get awfully comfortable with him too.

It didn’t take me long.

Comments

20 Responses to “Nathan Lawson (AKA Nate the Great)”
  1. Officer Koharski says:

    That’s good stuff to hear, I am definitley rooting for him, and he looked great in the preseason. The Edmonton radio guys were in love with him, from an uninformed point of view they thought he looked amazing and they were right. He was pulling out big saves, but like you said, he was with the play every step of the way and usually the saves he made were easy ones.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll make a serious push to play with the Isles this year. Biron and Roloson have something over him that can’t be ignored – big game experience and fat contracts to justify. I personally think his level of play is right up there with them, but he has three established NHL starters in his way. If the dominoes fall and he gets a few games, I hope he makes a good impression and earns a few starts. That said, another full year in the Bridge is still going to be valuable to his development. The more games he starts the more he’ll establish himself in the organization and he could be the third stringer by next season.

    Can I also say: Good for Denis and McRebound for getting contracts elsewhere. I thought they both did pretty well for us last season and the hate thrown down on them was pretty lame, they were made scapegoats for what was a lousy, lousy NHL squad. True, they had rough games and didn’t always hold up their end, but they both have good skills (as well as substantial flaws) but they’re both young and I hope they carve out decent careers. Denis in particular I can see having a career like Biron’s: second fiddle for a while, but there’s more to the picture than the limited games he gets to see. He has good ability, with time I think he’ll tune his technique and fulfill some of that potential.

  2. JustJeff says:

    I love when you write about people you’ve played with!

    This could be a regular series and it would make my week/month every time it aired… so to speak…

  3. Neil says:

    How weird is goalie scouting? The great ones can come out of nowhere, and ones that are supposed to be great can have their careers redefined (or ended) after a couple bad years. Jim Carey, Net Detective.

  4. Andrew says:

    I agree with J.J., it’s great to hear about former teammates. And, what’s really weird is that I can not find a single video showing off Laws’ pre-game ritual………

  5. P. D. says:

    A lot of the crazy stuff he did (does) for his pre-game happens in the hallway and in the locker room. I was amazed my first year with UAA at the bat shit crazy stuff he did. He added and dropped things through the years I was with him, but he had a stable of tried and true methods to his madness that I am pretty sure he still does today. I won’t go into them except to mention he would chew like 8 million pieces (may not be correct number) of Double Bubble before and during the game, and walks around shaking his legs like he is about to run the 100m race!

  6. Drayden Rupe says:

    Lawson,

    Good luck with your future it has been a year since we’ve seen you on the ice for the Utah Grizzlies and the past season when you were gone there were times when i would say Lawson wouldn’t take that crap “Players crashing in on him” I remember the game you got in a fight with one of the players and i was like what a bad a$$. Miss ya here and hope to see you in the Orange ,blue and white sweater this year!

  7. Celeste says:

    Loved watching him play in Utah!!!! We were sad to see him go but knew it was for the best!! He’ll be awesome in the NHL!!!!

  8. Kris says:

    You didn’t mention the infamous Gatorade dumping in Houghton. Obviously I was not there since I was in the AK. But as I hear it, he dumped a bottle of Gatorade on himself instead of water. The Tech fans raved about that for years, and they still might. That was as far as I can tell the defining moment of Lawson’s career as the Crazy One.

  9. Shannon says:

    It was great watching Laws in college at the Sully! The pre-game ritual is a blast to watch as a fan. One thing with living in Anchorage and watching the Seawolves, whether they win, lose, or tie, you are watching the best college players in the nation.

    As always JJ, your piece is a good read.

  10. josh ciocco says:

    Most interesting story I have along these lines is that of Bryan Rodney who now plays for Carolina. I was in worcestor’s AHL camp with him. Bryan had a good junior career in london and went undrafted. After juniors he went to the ECHL where he played the next 2 years. In the fall of 07 we were in worcestor, Rodney I felt looked really good and he’s a good guy too. He was cut during first cuts. He then returned to columbia on the ECHL. Worcestor was affiliated with Fresno at the time, and when I was sent down from worcestor to fresno the coaches told me they really liked Rodney and were going to try to trade for him. Well they traded for him and Rodney said cali was too far and he was not into hockey anymore and he retired. The fresno coaches then traded his rights to Elmira and Elmira was able to convince him to report. After 6 games in Elmira he had 11 pts as a Dman and got called up to albany. He finished out the season in albany and Carolina signed him. The following year he was in the lineup for Carolina for a dozen or so games. Went from retiring to being a wealthy NHL player in 1 year. Your article made me think of that, sorry for the novel.

  11. jtbourne says:

    Naw man, those are the comments readers love. The crazy thing is, there’s not one guy you or I played with that doesn’t have that story (or in reverse) about a friend or teammate. It seems so arbitrary. We could revolutionize the game by creating a huge “hockey players in North America” power ranking, so teams could at least check the top of the list. So often a guy gets pulled up that’s the 111th best available right defenceman, but is on the right team on the right day. That’s what so addicting, and why it’s so hard to quit.

    I talked to Mitch Fritz today (was thinking about using this as my blog topic tomorrow, but whateves), he just got sent down by the Coyotes. He was talking bout the possibility of him packing it in too, if that damn carrot wasn’t so big. He’d need to get called up for a month out of the next two years to justify sticking it out – at three grand a day (league minimum, pro rated, before taxes), that one month makes it all worthwhile…

  12. jtbourne says:

    Krissss, yes brotha. You guys watched him for years there. The Gatorade dump was priceless. It was the bottle labelling system that went awry, not Laws. Great reference. The Crazy One.

  13. JJ Vanderstam says:

    I played with Lawson in Midget, and against him in Bantam and Junior A when he was in Olds. We lost in the Air Canada (now Telus) Cup final in Double Overtime to Steve Bernier’s team. I think Nate made like 50 saves or something, he was the only reason we made it anywhere in that game. And he just keeps getting better.

    But like you said, as good as he is in the net, it is everything else that completes the package. He did the water bottle thing back in Midget too, but he was chewing tums then, not Double Bubble. Suppose that is an improvement? Always loved playing the puck, and he used to do the get down low and swing stick along ice at guy coming around the net all the time. Like all the time, possibly when there was no one behind the net too. And his “diving” and beaking was the highest of high comedy. Drove everyone nuts.

    Hope he gets sone NHL starts this year.

    Enjoy the blog man, keep up the good work.

  14. rm says:

    Another great blog entry. Not unexpected, but Lawson just got sent down by the Isles (http://islanders.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=499538&navid=DL|NYI|home). Tavares seems to be having a good camp.. any Bourne love coming for the guy he has been setting up (Matt Moulson)?

  15. jtbourne says:

    Haha, I’ve got an articles worth on Moulson. During my 18-19 year old year, he tried out for the junior team that had already signed me. Showed up with a glossy button-down shirt buttoned down with a gold chain and slicked straight back hair. Ah, f it, I’ll start writing this as a blog.

  16. rm says:

    Rumor has it Moulson wasn’t the “best dressed” guy at Cornell. There were reports of Doug Murray (goes by Douglas now and is a SJ Sharks defenseman) and some really tight pants. But hey, Murray lived in Sweden during his formative early teen years.

    I just like seeing guys who do the 4 year college route succeed in the pros. They won’t be your star players, but they can be that solid 5th defensemen or 3rd line forward who plays a solid game, will fight for the puck along the boards and chip in with a timely goal.

    Yeah, I was one of the dozen people who thought 1-0 hockey games were great :) .

  17. Marc says:

    Watching him go through his OCD in the middle of a packed wisconsin rink is the part that made me think he was a little more off than most goalies, not the OCD in it of itself, but that he would keep doing it with 2 decks of wisconsin students shouting at him. I can see what you mean about his play style though, kinda like the evil(?) twin to Staylock.

  18. O'Hara Shipe says:

    Really wonderful blog! I really enjoyed learning about Lawson’s quirks. Keep up the great writing!

  19. Section Fourteen says:

    Lawson is a sieve and a half. I just watched this chump give up 7 goals to Hartford in the AHL. The only shots he stopped all night was back on the team bus when the Sound Tigers pulled the inevitable train on his terrible ass.

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  1. [...] of today’s goalkeepers are less like the meditative Ryan Miller and more like “Nate the Great”. No, Nate Lawson hasn’t found a spot in the NHL – yet – but he surely isn’t [...]



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