He was one of WHL's best goaltenders last year and is picking up this season right where he left off in May. Nathan Lieuwen has stopped 95.3% of the shots he's faced and is sporting a miniscule 1.30 GAA after his first six appearances. Not bad for a guy who didn't get drafted until he was 19-years-old.
I had a chance to chat with the Buffalo Sabres 6th round pick about finally getting selected, what his impressions of the NHL organization were and where he fits into their big picture plus just what he thinks about returning to the WHL again.
Lieuwen missed significant time during his rookie year after being involved as a passenger in a car accident. He had a severe concussion and that limited him to just 3 appearances in the WHL during the 2007-08 campaign and according to current New York Islanders scout Michael Remmerde, the problems lingered during 2009 as well.
"The continued concussion issues this season drop him out of top 50 consideration," he wrote on his blog before the '09 draft before offering this nugget: "I'd roll the dice on him somewhere near the early 3rd, though - if he's healthy going forward he's a pretty elite goaltending prospect."
It was surprising to me that, despite the concussion worries, Liweuwen wasn't drafted at all in 2009 but then when he appeared in just 26 games the following season, there was real concern about his future.
It was great to see him bounce back last year and not just claim the starting job for the Kootenay Ice but backstop them into the playoffs, the league championship and to the Memorial Cup. His play during the 2010-11 season all but guaranteed that he would get drafted, the only question was when. Buffalo stepped up and took him in the 6th round.
When I met with Lieuwen recently I asked him about finally getting drafted and if he was excited about it or if a part of him was keen on the idea of being a UFA and having his pick of what would have surely been several offers.
"No, I'm happy with what happened," Lieuwen said, "The experience of going to camp this year was great for me. To be a part of the organization I think is a great opportunity for me."
Attending the sessions in Buffalo represented Lieuwen's first time at a pro camp which is obviously a memorable event for any player.
"I learned a lot; I went there with an open mind and was able to learn a lot from what they were teaching me and with all that was going on so it was really good for me."
You can imagine it didn't take Lieuwen long to check out the Sabres depth chart to get a sense of where he might fit in down the road. Despite names like Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth in the NHL, David Leggio and Drew MacIntyre on the farm in Rochester plus collegians Brad Eidsness (North Dakota) and Connor Knapp (Miami) in the pipeline, Lieuwen feels he's more than just in the mix.
"I think that there is a lot of opportunity for me to move up the ranks quickly [with Buffalo] within the next few years," the now 20-year-old said, "With the personnel that they have right now in the NHL they have some good goalies and I'm excited to gain experience before I take my shot up there."
I believe that, if Buffalo wanted to, they could have inked Lieuwen to a contract and assigned him to the ECHL but instead chose to return him to the Kootenay Ice. I asked the goalie if he had mixed emotions about coming back to the league again as an overager.
"Yeah maybe... but it was a win-win situation for me," he admitted, "I'm happy to be back here because I know that I will play a lot here, learn a lot and I'll get a lot of experience. Of course you always want to move on to the next level but I'm more than happy to be patient and wait for my opportunity."
The team that Lieuwen returns to looks different than the one he help carry to the Memorial Cup. Gone are Cody Eakin (WSH), Matt Fraser (DAL), James Martin (CGY), Brayden McNabb (BUF), Kevin King, Steele Boomer and more. There is new blood in the room though including another Reinhart brother, Sam, who enters the league with some hype around him.
I asked Lieuwen to compare this year's club with the team he backstopped last season.
"We did lose a lot of personnel however, I think that we have the same attitude," he said, "Winning is an expectation here. I think we have enough guys here that know how to win that we'll be able to win a lot of hockey games this year."
Thus far in the early season Lieuwen has played 6 games and has allowed more than two goals just once, the same number of times he's shut the door completely. The 6'5 native of Abbotsford B.C. ranks first in the league in both save percentages and goals against average so it's no surprise to see the Ice tied for top spot in the Central Division.
In a lot of ways, Kootenay's season will be dictated by the play of their netminder which, judging by his play over the last 14 months, is a good thing.