Seven years ago, hopes were high for Austin Watson.
A big-bodied forward from the OHL, Watson was selected 18th overall by Nashville at the 2010 draft — ahead of the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Charlie Coyle, among others.
“We were really happy to get Austin. He’s certainly a Predator- type player, doing all the little things to help your team win,” GM David Poile said at the time, per the Peterborough Examiner. “He’s got leadership qualities, and he’s been compared to Ryan Kesler in Vancouver.
“If he’s anything close to that, we’ll have had a very good day at the draft.”
Needless to say, expectations were high.
Yet expectations couldn’t have been much lower at the start of this campaign when Watson, who’d only played 63 games for the Preds over four seasons, was placed on waivers after training camp.
He’d failed to establish himself at the big-league level and was off to AHL Milwaukee, where he’d already spent a good part of his professional life.
That, it seems, was the motivation Watson needed.
Since being recalled in late October, the 25-year-old has been impressive, scoring a career-high 11 points through just 39 games. He’s averaging over 12 minutes per game and has earned not just the trust of head coach Peter Laviolette, but praise as well.
“He’s been doing everything right,” Laviolette said, per the Preds website. “His physicality, his defensive play, his offensive play, he’s been a real force for our team.”
Watson’s been on a tear lately, with three goals and four points in his last four games. Poile said he’s starting to play like the power forward the Preds envisioned back in 2010, and Watson has certainly acquitted himself physically, sitting second among all Nashville forwards with 76 hits.
That’s key for a team that doesn’t boast a ton of physicality. With Watson and the newly-acquired Cody McLeod in the lineup, the Preds feel they’re a tougher team to play against — and they are playing some of their best hockey of the year at the moment, with five wins in their last eight.