Austin Watson will soon see regular NHL time with the Nashville Predators. At least that is what Predators general manager David Poile said earlier this off-season.
Poile: I think Watson will make the #Preds roster this year, I’m very confident of that…We just didn’t have the room for him in 14-15.
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) June 30, 2015
However, in July, Nashville signed free agent center Cody Hodgson and re-signed Gabriel Bourque, Calle Jarnkrok, Mike Ribeiro, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson. Meanwhile, prospects Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala and Steve Moses are poised to play in the NHL this season.
If the Predators did not have room on its roster last year, it definitely does not have any this year either.
So where does Watson fit?
Nashville’s 2010 first round (18th overall) selection has appeared in just six career NHL games — and hasn’t played in the league since 2012-13 — tallying one goal and won 43.2-percent (19-for-44) of faceoffs. Instead, most of Watson’s time has been spent with the Predators’ AHL-affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. The native of Ann Arbor, Michigan has totaled 127 points (68 goals, 59 assists) in 229 games. Last season, the 23-year-old scored 44 points (26 g, 18 a) in 76 games for the Admirals.
Watson, a righty, is a natural center but can also play left-wing. Given the current roster situation, left-wing is the only spot available for Watson this season, barring any injuries at center. Watson will be in heavy competition for that final spot with the players mentioned above.
Though Poile’s comments are powerful and bold, they are not necessarily realistic. What is realistic, however, is Watson playing full-time in 2016-17.
The Predators will finally be able to rid itself of Paul Gaustad’s horrible $3.25 million annual cap hit at the end of this season. After acquiring Gaustad via trade from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2012 first-round pick, Nashville re-signed the fourth-liner to a jaw-dropping four-year, $13 million contract on July 1, 2012. Gaustad was given big money to win big faceoffs, and he did so. The faceoff ace has led the team in faceoff-winning percentage in every season since joining the team.
But is Gaustad truly worth $3.25 million? No.
Watson, younger and cheaper, can fill the fourth line center void in 2016-17. Gaustad and Watson are similar in the way they play, being solid in all three zones, and in body build at 6-foot-5, 223-pounds and 6-foot-4, 204-pounds, respectively.
I feel like Watson has been one of the more reliable and consistent members of the Admirals during his time with the team. He’s not flashy like Fiala. His shot isn’t wicked like Arvidsson. He doesn’t even hit like Miikka Salomäki. Nope, instead he’s just good in all three zones of the ice in all game situations. He does that while being a 20+ goal scorer and while being a leader on and off the ice.
In June, Watson signed a two-year contract with the Predators. The first year is a two-way worth $575,000 at the NHL level and $100,000 at the AHL level, and the second year is a one-way worth $575,000. Having a one-way in the season he has the best shot at making the team out of training is a nice reward for Watson. In preparation for 2016-17, it would be a mistake for the Preds to not have Watson play in at least five NHL games this season just so he can get his feet wet again.
Watson’s time for full-time NHL employment is coming, but he will likely have to wait yet another year.
Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.