When Nashville drafted Austin Watson 18th overall in 2010, he had just finished a 34-goal, 68-point season with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. Nashville believed it was getting a scoring forward to potentially slot on the wing sometime down the line.
Watson, by all accounts, seemed to fit that bill – scoring 20 goals in three-straight seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals from 2012-2015. However, beginning the 2016 season, one had to wonder where exactly Watson fit in, if at all, with Nashville.
The 6-foot-4 forward participated in training camp last year with the Preds, failing to make the roster. On Oct. 7, Nashville put Watson on waivers, exposing him to the other then 29 teams in the league. Nashville was not trying to push Watson out the door by any means, the Preds simply ran into a numbers game with their roster and Watson – being 24-years-old — had to pass through waivers before rejoining Milwaukee.
By Oct. 22, Watson was playing in Nashville again. Watson reinvented his game. The goal scoring wasn’t what it was in Milwaukee, but he tightened up his defensive game and found himself taking on the role of enforcer – until a trade for Cody McCleod didn’t necessitate his dropping the gloves as much.
Following a career resurgence and a standout playoff run, No. 51 now finds himself with a new three-year, $3.3 million contract and no longer wondering if there will be a roster spot left for him. It was hard work that got Watson to this point, and he doesn’t take one moment of it for granted.
“No matter what the situation is contract-wise, or where you think or other people think you sit, you come here and compete to make the team,” Watson said Sunday at Predators training camp. “It was good to get out here and compete against these guys and play in a game with the systems and everything like that. But it’s the same thing for me every time; work hard, stand out and make the team.”
During the regular season, Watson scored just five goals and 17 points in 77 games. During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, he brought his game to a whole new level – scoring four goals and nine points in 22 games. All four of his goals came against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final, including two in the series-clinching Game 6 win.
“It helps you with confidence to be able to produce in those situations and to know what you’re capable of,” Watson said. “The more you play, the more confident you are. You just have to take your opportunities and put pucks in the net. It all comes down to hard work and putting yourself in those areas and I just continue to try and do that.”
After the roller coaster of a season that 2016 was for not only Watson, but the Nashville Predators as a team, both are highly motivated to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. Falling just two wins shy of every NHL team’s ultimate goal, Watson and his Predators teammates are determined to write a better ending to their 2017 season.
“You take a couple of weeks after the season to look back on it and then you move past it,” Watson said. “I think we, as a group, are motivated by the success we had last year and also the failure at the end. We’ve seen what we’re capable of as a team, we fell short a little bit last year, but we’re hungry and we’re motivated to get back to where we ended last year.”
Nashville’s preseason continues this Friday at Tampa Bay.