Nathan Lawson (AKA Nate the Great)ShareThis
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.