By Matt Calamia (Twitter)
Josh Nicholls is hoping a change of scenery from one hockey hotbed to another will help him reach his ultimate goal of playing in the National Hockey League.
The Toronto Maple Leafs selected Nicholls in the seventh-round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft after he posted 48 points in 71 games with the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League.
But two years and an 87-point campaign in 2010-11 later, the Leafs opted not to offer Nicholls a contract, and the winger re-entered the draft in 2012, but went unselected.
“They didn’t see me fitting into what they’re doing there,” Nicholls told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “You kind of take that to heart. I think it was the best thing for me to go through that adversity … to improve my game that much more. Nothing comes easy and you have to work for everything.
Nicholls said being let go by Toronto and then going undrafted “gave me a chip on my shoulder,” heading into this last season.
That chip proved beneficial for the Tsawwassen, British Columbia-native, who went on to score 47 goals and 85 points in 71 games. That rebound caught the eye of the Rangers, who signed him to a contract in March.
“When it came down to it, New York was the team,” Nicholls said of his decision to sign with the Rangers despite other teams showing interest. “They showed that passion towards me being part of the organization. I think playing five years in the WHL, I felt like I grew each year. I’m just looking forward to getting into camp and showing the organization [what I have to offer].”
“I always saw that positive feedback [from the Rangers scouts] and that they liked my game,” Nicholls added. “I always wanted to work harder so the next time they saw me, they saw improvements.”
One of the members of the team’s front office that Nicholls developed a relationship with was Adam Graves, who would take in Blades games and meet with the young forward to go over his game.
Growing up in B.C., Nicholls — and his father — were Canucks fans, and Nicholls said he now jokes with his family about Graves, who wasn’t a family-favorite due to the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup win over Vancouver.
“Adam is a guy I watched growing up,” Nicholls said. “It’s definitely cool to see me on the other side” of the family rivalry with the Rangers.
The 21-year-old is an offensive dynamo who uses his speed to generate offense off the rush. Nicholls’s 85 points was tied for 12th in the WHL, while his 87-point campaign in 2010-11 was good enough to tie for eighth.
While the goal scoring is Nicholls’ bread and butter, he’s quick to point out that he isn’t a one-trick pony, and that he also takes pride in being a mainstay on Saskatoon’s penalty killing unit.
“You see a 47-goal scorer and you think that’s all they do,” said Nicholls, whose six short-handed goals this season led the Blades. “I took a lot of pride in being one of our team’s best penalty killers. I think it’s a part of my game that I’m never going to stop working at.”
With juniors behind him, Nicholls knows his next step is turning pro, something he’s been training his body for for several years.
“The biggest thing the last couple summers is beefing up and putting on the weight,” he said. “Going up against men now instead of junior guys is going to be a good test for me.”
With the difficult past behind him and the clean slate ahead, Nicholls can’t help but picture a future on Broadway, which begins in a few weeks at the team’s prospect camp in July.
“Being part of that whole tradition was something that lured me in,” Nicholls said of the Rangers. “Hopefully some day I can put on the jersey and play in Madison Square Garden.”