Austin Watson, recently re-signed for the next three seasons, had a strong individual 2016-17 season mostly on the fourth line. He was waived after training camp but was called up after the Soupocalypse in Detroit and played in all but one of the remaining games of the regular season. This season he brought a physical, defensive style to the fourth line. He doesn’t just hit and block shots, he can skate—which makes him a significant improvement over some recent fourth-line stalwarts.
Watson had 17 points, including five goals, this regular season and added nine points in the postseason. He also had 99 PIM (including thirteen fights, tied for fourth in the NHL) in the regular season and 28 PIM (but no fights) in the postseason. He led all Predators forwards in blocked shots with 66, and seemed to have a knack for a timely block. Laviolette relied on him heavily during shorthanded and 5v6 play.
Unfortunately for Watson, he spent a considerable amount of icetime with linemates like Vern Fiddler and Cody McLeod.
It didn’t go very well for him, or for the Predators.
This chart from HockeyViz.com shows how each of Watson’s most frequent combinations affected his shot rates. He and Colton Sissons were each better away from the other this season, though adjusting for zone starts helps a little. McLeod and especially Fiddler were also serious drags on Watson’s ability to be effective.
With Mike Fisher or Calle Järnkrok on the ice to center Watson, the Predators came closer to breaking even. Adjusting for zone starts helps Watson’s CF% a little in many cases and a lot with Järnkrok, bringing it up to 52.1% despite the fact that they started almost half of their shifts in the defensive zone. Even unadjusted, with the hockey as it actually happened, Järnkrok and Watson were effective when playing without Sissons, managing a 50.7 CF% despite starting over 44% of their shifts in the d-zone.
Overall, Watson was given unforgiving usage this season. The improved center depth we have going in to next season should help him manage more effectively in the same circumstances. And in spite of his poorer CF% numbers, Watson remained effective at limiting dangerous chances against.
In addition to his on-ice contributions, Watson was also one of the players who worked with MEND Nashville’s campaign to end domestic violence.
Best Moment of the Season
Although the series-clinching Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals this year was Sissons’ time to shine, Watson had an impressive game too.
He opened and closed the scoring, getting the Predators off on the right foot and adding the second empty-netter to put the game out of reach of even a team as skilled at late comebacks as the 2017 Ducks were. He also blocked six shots.
Worst Moment of the Season
The obvious answer is probably “not making the team out of training camp.” Once he had, though, his worst moment was probably late in a game against the Edmonton Oilers, in which the Predators were on the penalty kill with a late one-goal lead. Watson was on the receiving end of a surprisingly clean but massive check from Milan Lucic and decided to retaliate.
Lucic went on to tie the game on the ensuing 5v3, although the Predators managed to survive overtime and ultimately took the winner point in the shootout. Whatever your feelings about Lucic or his antics, this was bad timing and worse judgment from Watson.
Trending Up or Trending Down?
Trending slightly up. He’s already improved a lot from last season, when his play was often not very good and he was not careful with his size. This season his skating and his awareness of the game seemed significantly improved. He was also a lot more aware of where and how he was hitting other players, which let fans enjoy the physical element of his game without having to worry about injuries or ill-timed penalties.
However, he probably doesn’t have much further up to go at the NHL level. Entering his age 26 season, it’s very unlikely that he’ll do much more than continue to refine his game. Almost no forwards find a new level of offensive production at this point in their careers.
FINAL GRADE: B
Watson plays an important role competently. He’s struggled with bad linemates but done very well with better ones. He’s not good enough to make the players around him better, but he carries his own weight well.
(Shot and ZS% stats from Puckalytics.com.)
How would you grade Austin Watson’s performance this season?
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A– or B+
B– or C+
C– or D+