Watson's Built to Shoulder Expectations
Jan 25, 2013
By Jason Karnosky
For better or for worse, expectations are high for National Hockey League first-round draft picks, even though many top choices don’t pan out.
But that burden weighs a little bit heavier on Milwaukee Admirals rookie forward Austin Watson, due to the simple fact that he represents the Nashville Predators most recent first-round selection as the 18th overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft.
Luckily for Watson, he carries the broad shoulders necessary to carry the load.
“There’s no question that (Austin) has the right makeup physically and mentally to be an effective NHL player,” said Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said. “You never really know the timeframe with these guys, but his desire to be a pro will allow Watson to get to the next level.”
Watson’s drive likely stems from his unique family background. Austin is the oldest of 10 kids to parents Mike and Mary of Ann Arbor, Michigan. With such a full house, sibling rivalries certainly ran hot at times for the Watsons growing up.
“It was pretty crazy at home and the numbers were obviously pretty high,” Watson said. “But (my siblings) all are good kids and we all really enjoy each other.”
Growing up in a family that large, it was difficult for the Ann Arbor native to leave home and pursue a professional hockey career. However, Watson preserved, maturing as a player and person through an extensive journey in the Ontario Hockey League, which saw him make stops in Windsor, Peterborough and London, while changing squads twice in mid-season.
“As hockey players we are expected to grow up pretty quickly because were all moving away from home, some earlier than others,” Watson said. “That forces you to learn how to handle some things on your own like the travel and the grind of a long schedule.”
Watson began to stand out during the 2010-2011 season, racking 34 goals and 68 points with the Petes. But he also posted a trying minus-38 rating on a struggling Peterborough team that finished 20-45-1-2 and in second-to-last place in the 20-team OHL.
The lone bright spot of that campaign for Watson came that spring when he dressed in his first five professional regular season games for Milwaukee. Watson followed that up with another three more appearances in the American Hockey League playoffs as Admirals fell in seven games to arch rival Chicago.
Buoyed by the experience, Watson evolved into a more dynamic player the following year, starting the season with Peterbourgh before being picked up for the Memorial Cup stretch run by London.
Watson was at his best during the Knights 19-game playoff run, scoring 10 goals and finishing with 17 points as London captured an OHL championship. The forward then finished as the seventh leading scorer during the Memorial Cup playoffs, but his Knights fell 2-1 in overtime to Shawinigan in the final.
“I expected Austin to transition well because I knew he played under Dale Hunter (in London),” said Evason, who coached alongside Hunter in Washington. “When you come from that kind of environment maybe your development is a little bit quicker than your competition.”
Against the backdrop of the pending lockout, Watson turned professional in the summer of 2012 with the goal of making Nashville out of training camp. With the NHL season delayed, the 6-3, 202 lbs. center went down to Milwaukee to soak up everything the Admirals coaches could teach him.
Like most players Watson endured an adjustment period to the pace of play in the AHL. But the rookie came into his own in November, racing to the top of the Admirals leading scorers by piling up six goals and 11 points.
“The AHL’s a hard league to play in, especially with the quality of players that were here this year due to the lockout,” Watson said. “But the guys have been great helping me adjust to the professional lifestyle and the game. (Plus) I’ve had some good linemates (so) that’s made the (transition) process that much easier.”
Through Milwaukee’s extensive home stretch during the next two months, Watson’s points faded, but the tenacious forward still found himself on the score sheet at key times, including a game winner in the final two minutes of the Admirals 4-3 come from behind victory over the Wolves on January 3.
“It’s nice to score some big goals for this team,” Watson said. “I wasn’t touted as a prolific goal scorer coming out of juniors, but I’ve been fortunate enough to get some good bounces. I’m thankful to be put out in those situations and to get the chance to play with the game on the line.”
Watson’s teammates noticed right away how well the rookie handled the pressure of his lofty expectations.
“(Watson’s) a big investment for Nashville and he knows that and we all know that,” Admirals forward and frequent linemate Chris Mueller said. “But he’s mature as a player and taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to him. (Austin’s) getting on the power play more, getting opportunities to score goals, but he’s also playing well defensively.”
To date Watson has 21 points to lead all Milwaukee rookies, and ranks as the third leading scorer on the team. He picked up his 14th goal of the season last night against Houston to lead all Admirals and ranks amongst the scoring leaders for first year skaters.
“Ever since we’ve moved (Watson) to center ice, he’s just been a nice fit for us alongside Chris Mueller and Mark Van Guilder,” Evason said. “(Austin) provides us not only with some offensive flair, but he also kills penalties, takes big face-offs and does all those little things—the details that we like and obviously Nashville is going to like in the future.”
Like his teammates, the points slowed down for Watson in recent weeks, as Milwaukee struggled to adjust to post-lockout life without three of its leaders, defensemen Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis and forward Gabriel Bourque. But Mueller knows it won’t be long before Watson joins him in gaining valuable NHL experience with the Predators.
“(Austin’s) game just has to continue to evolve,” Mueller said. “As long as (Watson) keeps progressing and getting better, and remember he’s just a young kid, he will have a great opportunity to play in the National Hockey League someday.”
One thing Watson needs to do is work on improving his reaction time and his overall play. The latter is really coming along, as the forward continues to compete as a plus player in the AHL (currently a plus-two). Now the newly minted 21-year-old has to bear down and learn to respond faster to developing plays.
“(Watson’s) a mature guy, both mentally and physically, and he’s not far off being ready for the NHL,” Evason said. “He needs to get a step in his game as far as quickness and that’s something he’s aware of and working on constantly. If he does that he’s going to develop into a really good professional and hopefully a really good NHL player.”
Watson wants to take that next step in his game so that Nashville coach Barry Trotz is willing to call on him to compete with the Predators.
“I think everything is coming along nicely,” Watson said. “There are games where I could have played better and things I can improve on, but there will be decisions to be made in the future (on who gets called up). It’s up to all of us here in Milwaukee to play our best and be ready for that opportunity.”
Until that time Watson wants to assist his Admirals teammates in turning things around in Milwaukee.
“If I get called up, that’s great because our ultimate goal is to play in the National Hockey League,” Watson said. “But for right now each day I’m working at getting better and helping out our team.”