MANNHEIM – Kaspars Daugavins first came to international prominence at the 2006 World Championship in his native Riga. Only 17 years old at the time, he played just a small role on the Latvian national team, but as he has developed, he has become the cornerstone of the team’s future in the generation following Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolins, and the late Sergejs Zoltoks.
“We have a lot of young guys coming into the national team,” Daugavins said the other day after the team beat Italy, 5-2, to advance to the Qualification Round. “We now have maybe only six or seven guys here from the team when I first started. I think we’re a stronger team now because we’re younger and faster.”
Daugavins is central to the team’s development. He played for Latvia at three U18 events in Division I and demonstrated even as a young teen he was a top prospect in Latvia. In fact, in 2006 he played at the U18, U20, and World Championship and was even considered for the Olympic team.
Just a few weeks after the 2006 Worlds, Daugavins was drafted 91st overall by the Ottawa Senators and started to think about a life in pro hockey. That fall he moved to Toronto and played for St. Mike’s, an easy transition for two reasons. One, he knew if he were going to develop into an NHLer, he’d need better coaching and challenge than the junior system in Latvia. Two, he was going to a city with the largest Latvian population in the world outside his home country, so he could easily make the move comfortably off ice.
Daugavins played for St. Mike’s and then Mississauga/St. Mike’s for the next three years, earning a little playing time with the Senators’ AHL team in Binghamton along the way. He also continued to play for Latvia at the World Championship, in both 2007 and 2008, although the team finished a disappointing 13th and 11th, respectively.
After graduating from the OHL, Daugavins knew he had to make improvements to his game if he were to continue up the chain of development that is required to make the NHL. This was hampered by an injury that cost him the last part of the 2008-09 season. Nevertheless, this past year was a huge leap for him because he played entirely in the AHL. He even got into his first NHL game. Daugavins had 21 goals and 46 points for Binghamton and showed true flashes of NHL-level skill.
“It was a pretty good year for me,” he said proudly. “I started the season slowly because I had shoulder surgery in the summer, so when I came back I wasn’t skating with the team [Binghamton]. But when I started playing, I improved. I started on the fourth line and picked up all the way to the second line, got some power play time and just worked hard in front of the net. I crashed in front and scored some goals, and Ottawa rewarded me by calling me up for a game.”
That personally historic game came on January 14, 2010, at Madison Square Garden in New York. “It was amazing. I never even played an exhibition game with Ottawa, so it was my first time in the big league right away in a great arena. It was amazing.”
And what stands out about that night? “My first shift I played against [Marian] Gaborik’s line. I was a little worried because when they saw we were out there, they changed lines to play against our fourth line. But we actually almost scored on that shift. One of the guys I passed to hit the crossbar with a shot. I would have gotten my first assist.”
Soon after, he was among the very best of the best, playing for Latvia at the Olympics in Vancouver. The team finished dead last, 12th of 12 teams, but Daugavins is optimistic that the future is better than the present or recent past.
“We still have some players developing who aren’t ready for the World Championships yet. But in a couple of years they’ll be playing really well and I think our national team is going to get better every year for quite a while now.”
As for his personal success, the next couple of years are crucial to determine whether he is a budding NHLer or a career AHLer. He turns 22 in four days (May 18), and he is physically in his prime.
“I believe I can make the Senators next year,” he stated with the confidence necessary to make the grade. “There are a couple of things I have to do, though. I have to come in really good shape and have a good camp. I have to work hard, and if I don’t make it, I’ll go to the American league and work hard there and hopefully get the chance to be called up again.”
In the meantime, he and the Latvian national team are here in Mannheim, preparing for the Qualification Round and hoping to win the right game to get into the quarterfinals group. It’s a daunting task these days, but Daugavins and the team are looking good.