If you've seen the ISS Top 30 for April, then you know that forward prospect Austin Watson is now in the 12-spot as far as International Scouting Services is concerned. The 6'3" 187 pounder climbed to the ISS 8-spot last month after taking a turn at 14th in February and 18th in January. Watson also managed to climb 11 places on the NHL Central Scouting Final Rankings, finishing as the 14th best Domestic Skater.
The right winger is an interesting mix of size, sense and sandpaper. He's the number 12 flavor of the month, and the Ducks pick 12th in June, so it's time to take a look at Austin Watson. The above video gives a couple of quick anecdotes on the Ann Arbor native's family life, so watch it, and I'll move right on to his hockey story after the jump...
Austin Watson had one of the more intriguing OHL Priority Selections (Drafts) in 2008. He was a lanky up-and-comer who had 45 goals and 149 points in 75 games with Detroit Compuware AAA. In terms of potential, many placed him in the Top 10 of that year's Priority Selection, but he was also one of the clear "don't draft me" players, as he had made a verbal commitment to the University of Maine and plainly stated that he intended to play in the USHL. As such, he slipped to the second round, where the Windsor Spitfires snatched him up.
Watson jumped ship for the OHL shortly thereafter, citing the delay in his selection to the US National Development team as his reasoning. Naturally, Windsor was happy to have him. Now, there are some who would say that any "don't draft me" player that ends up with the team that drafted him is just trying to angle his way onto a better team at the Priority Selection. I won't call shenanigans on Watson, but I will say that moves as career-smart as this-- and it wouldn't be the last of Watson's career --are rarely improvised.
The Spitfires won the Memorial Cup that year, but Watson wasn't a featured player. His performance drew comparisons to NHLer Jordan Staal i.e. a high-compete forward who found a niche in the game's dirty minutes. Staal is a rather facile analogue, but it's not an unfounded comparison. Watson was playing on a team with a lot of top-end skaters, a situation that can force even great players into niche roles, and so he became known as a shot-blocker and a penalty killing specialist. Unfortunately, the Draft is rarely kind to players whose toolkit is not on display from game to game so a jailbreak from that situation seemed imminent.
2008-09 Windsor Spitfires
2009-10 Windsor Spitfires
At the trade deadline this year, the Spitfires asked Watson to waive his no-trade clause so they could send him and two second round picks to the Peterborough Petes in exchange for Zack Kassian. Watson boiled the decision down to an opportunity to showcase what he could do (i.e. not just what he could do on the Spitfires), which would be much easier on the young Petes team.
Unfortunately, after only three games with the Petes, Watson would suffer a broken ankle in the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game. Taylor Hall requested that his former teammate play a 5-on-3 kill, and Watson didn't disappoint. He blocked two shots, the second of which sent his current teammate, Ryan Spooner, down ice for a shorthanded goal. But that same shot would break Watson's ankle and send him to the operating room.
Watson returned to action a month after surgery i.e. early, and he became the all-situation player the Petes wanted when they traded for him, playing on both special teams units and centering the top line between Pat Daley and Matt Puempel. Coach Ken McRae handed him the starring role, and Watson became a star. A five goal, four assist effort in a three-game stretch earned him CHL Player of the week and he generally dominated the opposition to close out the season.
2009-10 Peterborough Petes
The Petes were bounced from the playoffs in one round, but the timing was perfect for Watson, who was able to use the opportunity to move on to the USA roster for the 2010 IIHF U18 World Championships.
2010 IIHF U18 World Championship
No, that's not a typo. Thirty-three penalty minutes in a seven game tournament. Watson took a five minute major for boarding and a game misconduct in the Gold Medal game against Sweden. The subject of his hit, Henri Snäll, had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher. His non-game-winning goal was a demoralizer in the USA/Canada game, and no less important, but unfortunately, the most memorable Austin Watson moment of the tournament will probably come down to his hit on Snäll.
-Character Actor. In terms of a well-bred role player, you can't ask for more than a Memorial Cup and a U18 Gold Medal. Add his size to that, and his basement value at the next level is nothing to scoff at.
-Potential Energy. He's starting to show some serious skill as a scorer and a playmaker up the middle with the Petes. Projecting his end-of-the-year numbers onto next season, he could be a monster of a complete player.
-Staal For Time. Comparing him to Jordan Staal, there are those that still doubt the wisdom of picking Staal so high, especially when it left so many impact players like Kessel and Toews on the board. The Ducks know the value of a Pahlsson-type center, but overlooking more obvious impact players (and at least one still may be available at 12th) may be something reserved for teams that already picked Fleury, Malkin and Crosby going into a Draft.
-Fearless Factor. As with any shot blocker, and especially with a lanky kid, you worry about longevity. Some consider Watson the best shotblocker in the CHL, and he still managed to blow a wheel on a block.