Back in the day, it was common for a player to get his NHL meal ticket through fighting. Nowadays, the battleship-sized goon is basically extinct and overall, fisticuffs are down in the league. Now consider the curious case of Nashville’s Austin Watson.
Throughout his junior career, Watson was a toolsy player with a great 6-foot-4 frame who could score at a decent clip and kill penalties with his great reach. The Predators selected him 18th overall in the 2010 draft and he continued to develop in the OHL, eventually winning a championship with the London Knights.
Like the majority of NHLers, Watson’s first pro move was to the AHL, where he suited up for the Milwaukee Admirals. For a while there, it looked like Watson was going to be stuck at the level: he earned six games with the Preds in his rookie campaign, but spent the rest of the 2012-13 season in Milwaukee. The next two years were spent entirely in the AHL.
In 2015-16, Watson began to establish himself as a bottom-sixer in Nashville. He had one fight – against Jarome Iginla – and played 10 minutes a night. Then, a funny thing happened: Watson became a fight machine the next season. During a time when brawling was on the wane, he dropped the gloves 13 times last year, tying him for fourth in the league. And he wasn’t shying away from the big boys – Watson’s dance partners included Shawn Thornton, Patrick Maroon and Tom Wilson. Keep in mind: Watson had four fights total in his entire junior career and once went two full seasons without sparring after he turned pro. So this wasn’t exactly by design.
“It’s hard to get into this league and it’s hard to find a role,” Watson said. “The more I focused on playing a physical brand, being that physical player I needed to be, the fights just came along with that. It’s not something I’m looking for and it’s not something I pride my game on. But if it’s going to happen, it’s OK.”
This year, Watson is once again fourth in the NHL, with seven fights through 50 games. Though he’s not looking for trouble, his Nashville teammates are happy to have him sort it out when it arises.
“That’s always been part of the game,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis. “If something goes wrong out there or if you feel that your team was taken advantage of, knowing you have a guy that is willing to do the stuff that not everyone is willing to shows a lot for his heart, his character and his care for his teammates.”
Ellis played junior hockey with Watson when both were with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, so he knows there are multiple dimensions to the right winger’s game.
“He brings things that not a lot of guys can bring,” Ellis said. “When you think of his game, it’s the ultimate team-first game – he has the willingness to block shots and he’s a terrific penalty-killer. His game has evolved so well and it’s terrific to see where he is now.”
During Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup final last year, Watson played some of the best hockey of his young career. Along with his lunch-pail duties, he rang up nine points in 22 games and logged 13:40 of ice time – a career-best.
“For us as a group to go through that run was huge for our confidence,” he said. “For me, when you’re playing on the biggest stage and being counted on to take minutes down in some crucial situations, to kill penalties and also produce; it was great for my confidence. Hopefully I can build on that.”
And while it seemed like the first-rounder was taking a lot of time to develop in Milwaukee, it’s worth remembering that Watson was still growing into his frame at the time. Not only that, but he credits his Admirals days with rounding out his game. The speed and man-strength that young pros face when they make the jump to the AHL can be a stern one and Watson believes the experience taught him how to play the pro game the right way.
As for his new-found role as the Predators’ most active puncher, Watson makes it clear that he doesn’t fight for the sake of fighting.
“The way the game is now, it’s either defending a teammate or defending myself,” he said. “It’s a fast game. There’s big hits or guys taking liberties. It does have to be at the right time because you don’t want to switch momentum against your team.”
Last year, Watson racked up 99 PIM with the Predators. His previous high at any level had been 54. With 89 already this year, he will most likely break 100 for the first time ever. While enforcers from the recent past trained in the art of combat – even taking MMA classes in some cases – Watson is focused on improving the other parts of his game; the parts that keep him out of the penalty box.
“No boxing lessons for me,” he said. “It’s more video and working on my skill set.”