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The Resurgence of Austin Watson

Since Early Season Demotion, Preds Forward Has Added Numerous Elements to His Game

by John Glennon @glennonsports / jg1sport@aol.com

At 1:02 of the second period in Thursday's win over Boston, Predators forward Austin Watson barreled into the slot, snatched a loose puck and whipped it past Bruins goalie Zane McIntyre in the blink of an eye.

It's the kind of scene that's become increasingly familiar to Predators fans, as Watson has points in four-straight games - including three goals.

The goal-scoring, however, has been just a part of an NHL rebirth of sorts for Watson, who's carved out a much-expanded role in recent weeks. He's increased his ice time, worked his way onto a more talented line and even shown a newfound willingness to drop the gloves.

"He's been doing everything right," Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "His physicality, his defensive play, his offensive play, he's been a real force for our team."

What sparked Watson's improvement?

Much of the change can be traced to Oct. 7, his most difficult moment as a pro. That was the day the Predators placed Watson on waivers, exposing him to the other 29 teams in the League.

The Preds, it should be noted, weren't trying to part ways with Watson.

Nashville ran into a numbers crunch when forming its season-opening roster, and Watson - who hadn't made the kind of impression he'd hoped during training camp - was the odd man out. Because of his age and experience, the 24-year-old Watson needed to pass through waivers before the Preds could assign him to Milwaukee.

Still, the experience of being told he'd been placed on waivers was a blow to Watson, the Predators' first-round draft pick in 2010. He'd shown promise in the minors, putting together three-straight years of at least 20 goals in the American Hockey League.

"It definitely wasn't fun," Watson said of the waiver process. "There's definitely a lot of things that go through your mind because you really don't know what will happen next. It was my fifth or sixth year in the organization, so at that point, you kind of wonder if you're going to get the opportunity to get back."

It turned out that opportunity came very quickly for Watson, who was passed over by every NHL team during the waiver process and sent to Milwaukee.

On Oct. 22, Watson was already on his way back to Nashville, recalled after the Preds were left short-handed due to illness going through the dressing room.

Only a few days later, the 6-foot-4, 204-pound Watson showed at least one new wrinkle in his repertoire, squaring off in a fight against Los Angeles' Derek Forbort. Watson had fought just once in 65 NHL games to that point, but he's dropped the mitts five more times since, leaving him tied for sixth overall in the NHL with six fighting majors this season.

On a team that - prior to Friday's trade for Cody McLeod - lacked a natural "tough guy," Watson took it upon himself to stand up for his teammates.

"I give him a lot of credit for that because that's a tough job," Preds Captain Mike Fisher said. "He's stepped in and in some tough instances, really given us a boost. That's something that's evolved in his role a little bit, and he's done a great job."

Said Watson: "I'm a big guy, and I think I needed to be a little more physical. It kind of comes with the territory. You're either standing up for a teammate, getting some energy or sometimes having to defend yourself."

More subtle changes in his game also started to become apparent for Watson, who hadn't distinguished himself in 2015-16 - his first full season in the NHL. Since returning from Milwaukee, he's looked hungrier - more intent on making things happen - than he had been prior to going on waivers.

"When I came back, there was nothing to lose, so I was just trying to help the team and not be so worried about making mistakes," Watson said. "Mistakes do happen and you definitely need to be aware defensively and make the right decisions for our hockey team. But I've also tried to impact the game in a more positive way."

Added Laviolette: "I think more than anything what I've seen is him wanting to be on the ice, wanting to make a play, to be a difference-maker. I think what happens sometimes when players are trying to make a team is that they almost don't want to make a mistake, and that's the wrong way to go about it. He's just been terrific since he's been back here."

The improvements in Watson's game and his outlook have have led to increased responsibility and opportunity.

He's seen more than 15 minutes of ice time in four of his last five games, including a career-high 17:42 in the 2-1 win over Boston. Watson has also moved up from the Preds' fourth to the third line in the last few games, pairing with Fisher and Colton Sissons for what's proven to be a very productive trio.

Video: BOS@NSH: Watson opens the scoring in the 2nd

The promotion has coincided with Watson's point streak (3g,1a), which becomes all the more impressive considering he'd scored just five goals in his first 98 NHL contests. In fact, his assist on Fisher's game-tying goal versus the Avalanche on Sunday set a new career high in points with 11.

"He's starting to look like the player we drafted - a bigger, more powerful forward," Predators General Manager David Poile said. "In a lot of ways, I guess you could say he's re-invented himself. He's a guy you're really starting to notice because of his tenacity and persistence, so we're really pleased with his progress this first half of the season."

A season that began with so much uncertainty.

"There's no point in looking back now," Watson said. "I'm just looking at every game as an opportunity to prove myself. It's nice to make an impact on the team."

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