It sounds deceptive to say that Austin Watson, former eighteenth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, is still having to prove himself — but the 23 year old left wing has just inked his first contract extension, and it’s only good for two years at $1.15 M total.
Every player has a different timetable for development, and every team has a different method for developing their prospects — even within the teams themselves, development from position to position differs by a wide margin. Some clubs like to bring on players near NHL-ready levels to fill in depth roles, sheltering their minutes and zone starts until they feel the skaters can really elevate their game to the line they belong on. Others prefer to see prospects surpass the quality of competition in the AHL before they see NHL ice time; still more like to have a line of players or a defensive pairing find their rhythm together in the minors before they get call-ups.
For Watson, things have been frustratingly slow, though.
Nothing about Watson’s development has been easy, starting with the major juniors. Bounced between three different teams, Watson dealt with some tension while a player for the Peterborough Petes following his appearance in the 2012 World Junior Championships — which resulted in his getting dealt to the London Knights — and before that he’d been a piece moved from the Windsor Spitfires to try and keep the Petes competitive.
He’s a big, strong forward who’s as effective on the power play as he is on the penalty kill. One of the unique forwards who’s versatile enough to play up the middle or sit on either wing, Watson’s 6 foot 4 frame make him a commodity — and he’s been more than adequate skating for the Milwaukee Admirals, coming in second only to zany winger Viktor Arvidsson in scoring during the 2014-2015 regular season. He’s become an on-ice leader, developing as a presence the play centers around regardless of where he stands on the ice or whether he has the puck.
Why isn’t he in Nashville, though?
At the signing of his two year extension this week, Watson had only clocked in at six regular season games played for the Nashville Predators — and those came during the 2012-2013 season, two full years ago. He scored his first NHL goal, then dropped back to a full time member of the AHL Admirals.
Depending on how the Predators react to the Mike Ribeiro situation, next year could be his year. At 23, he’s reached that plane of AHL play where he’s both at a higher skill level than much of his competition — and he’s got the experience to trump those who he’ll go toe-to-toe with on the ice at the NHL level one day. One of the oldest remaining forwards in the AHL who projects to play in either a top six or top nine all-situations role, Watson is a rare member of the 2010 draft class’ first round who’s ready to hit the big ice, but just hasn’t yet.
Should the Predators bring back Ribeiro, though — and that’s not an endorsement, just an exploration of a possibility outside of my control — we may have to wait a year to see what Watson’s capable of at the NHL level long-term.
This is where he’ll need to prove himself.
Nashville rocks a system that doesn’t move up players just for the sake of giving them NHL ice time, and there hasn’t yet been room for Watson up the centre of the ice for the club. As such, he’s been kept in Milwaukee — but with the guarantee, unlike on other clubs, that a move up to the NHL level won’t be for six minutes of ice time at even strength only. If he sees the inside of Nashville’s arena, it will be because he’s got a secure place in the lineup.
The respect for Watson in the AHL is tangible; more time spent in the minors than a player deems fair can create a sulky air around players who believe they’re being slighted. This is where Watson will need to prove that he understands what the long term goal is — and with two years to make the roster, his next contract should look a lot prettier from his perspective than the one he’s under now.
That’s certainly worth it.