Most major junior players face the challenge of moving away from home for the first time to play in a new city as fresh-faced teenagers. And while Austin Watson had to move from Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2008 to join the Windsor Spitfires, it was an adjustment he was more than capable of making.
“Since I was 12 my parents moved to Florida and I stayed with my grandparents and I got used to living away from home,” Watson said. “It’s hard at times, especially when you’re struggling a little bit, you start to think about it. I don’t think it’s a huge issue for me, though. I’m used to it.”
Watson is the oldest of 10 children, nine boys and one girl. And even though his mother was less than a month away from giving birth to No. 10 at the 2010 NHL draft, his family all made the cross-country trek to Los Angeles to see Watson get selected 18th overall by the Nashville Predators.
“First of all, his size is very attractive to us,” said Predators GM David Poile. “He’s very competitive, never gives up, he has a lot of good details to his game in terms of blocking shots. I think he’s a player the coaches really like and hopefully his offensive game, which showed some sparks last year, will come along also.”
Watson had a no-trade clause in his contract with the Spitfires, so when they traded him to the Peterborough Petes last season - for Sabres 2009 first-rounder Zack Kassian - Watson had to give the green light.
Buried on a deep Windsor depth chart and recognizing the new challenges the move would introduce, Watson uprooted again and joined the historic Petes franchise.
“I think it’s a tough situation when you’re called into the room and asked whether you’re going to accept the trade or not; you basically feel like there’s one way to go,” Watson said. “I accepted the trade and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to go into Peterborough and accept a larger role offensively and as a leader on the team.”
While Watson finished last season with 20 points in 10 games for his new team, the Petes were eliminated early and Windsor won its second consecutive Memorial Cup. So far this season Watson’s numbers are off his accelerated pace as he has 23 points through 28 games. While a lot of that can be chalked up to the Petes being a young team struggling for wins, coach Mike Pelino was still surprised Watson wasn’t selected to Team USA’s world junior squad.
“I think he’s mature enough to understand you can’t control everything,” Pelino said. “Everyone can second-guess picking this player over that player or leaving someone off. I believed how he was coming on recently and based on my conversations with Team USA that he was definitely going to be considered for the team.”
Watson attended his first professional training camp in the fall with Nashville. It was a bit of an eye-opener for a 6-foot-3, 187-pounder who is used to being able to physically wear down his opponents and provided a first-hand glimpse into what it will take to move up to the next level.
“You look around the room at all these guys; they’re all in top physical condition especially the guys of my height,” Watson said. “For me to be able to play at that level, I have to put on more muscle and get in that kind of shape to be able to compete.”
Watson prides himself on responsible play and looks at Jordan Staal of the Pittsburgh Penguins as the type of game he’d like to employ at the NHL level one day. Pelino compares Watson’s style to another top-caliber, two-way NHLer.
“I see him as a Mike Richards type of guy who can play both ends of the ice and is responsible from a defensive standpoint,” Pelino said. “He’s a third-line type center, but he’s got the ability to play on the power play and he really gets his nose dirty.”
So with the Petes sitting at the bottom of their division, should Watson expect to be traded again this season?
“I don’t think so,” Pelino said. “He’s still young. He’s a ’92 and I think teams looking to load up will go for the older guys, the ’91 birthdays. We want him to be a part of our organization because we still believe we’ll be a team to be reckoned with as the season goes on.”
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