2018-2019 Player Reviews: Austin Watson

We review Watson’s season with the Preds.

Last summer, Austin Watson was arrested for domestic assault and pleaded no contest to the charges. He received a 27-game suspension from the NHL, but the suspension was reduced to 18 games when the NHLPA appealed.

The Nashville Predators—who maintain their partnership with the Nashville YWCA’s program AMEND Together, which works to reduce domestic violence—returned Watson to a regular role once his suspension was over as if the events of the summer had never happened.

In January, Watson was suspended indefinitely for alcohol abuse and entered Stage 2 of the NHL’s substance abuse and behavioral health program. He was reinstated in March after completing the program.

This report card evaluates Watson’s season on the ice, since he did play the season with the team, but we neither can, nor should, pretend that on-ice performance is the only thing that matters about a NHL player.

The Report Card:

Season in Review:

Watson’s season was shortened both by his suspension at the beginning of the season and by a medical situation in early spring. He played only 37 games and didn’t produce much in raw terms, but still had his most productive season on a night-by-night or hour-by-hour basis with 16 points (7G/9A). If you look at the report card, you’ll see the rate stats (production per hour and attempts to produce per hour) look great, but the totals do not.

His career high last season was 19 points in 76 games, helped by an improbably high shooting percentage for someone who plays the style Watson does; in 2016-17 he probably should have done better, but couldn’t buy a goal. This season he settled in with a plausible enough 10.9 sh%, and took more shots per hour than he previously had as well.

The other thing that jumps out looking at the report card is Watson’s excellent luck with on-ice goaltending. While he was on the ice, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros did better than the average goalie, and the opponents’ goalies did worse. The actual goals that made it onto the scoreboard heavily favored the Predators (green bars at the top of the On-Ice Rates/60 section), but the expectations—how many shots were being taken, and where those shots were coming from—didn’t.

In general, that kind of thing averages out over time; it seems like Watson got lucky this year, and this is reflected in his plus/minus and will lead some people to say he had a good year defensively.

This is not true.

Dr. McCurdy has been working extensively to separate out individual players’ impact on the game (you can watch his 2018 OTTHAC presentation and/or read the accompanying slides if you’re curious about the mathematical principles involved), and it looks like Austin Watson had a career-worst defensive season by kind of a lot. True, he played many fewer games and missed a lot of time, so some of it may be sample size and some of it may be rust, but that’s still pretty dramatic.

Given that Watson is expected to perform in a shutdown role, that’s a problem, especially since for all those excellent offensive rates of production he only contributed sixteen actual points, with no guarantee of more, at the other end of the ice.

Best Moment:

Watson joined the very odd listing of Preds players with hat tricks this past season by scoring three against the Anaheim Ducks—one into the empty net, but the other two of them on John Gibson, who was brazenly robbed of the Vezina for his work this year. I don’t even remember who actually won the Vezina, but it should have been Gibson, and scoring on him should probably be worth a little extra.

Worst Moment:

Nothing comes to mind for an on-ice worst moment for Watson for the 2018-19 season. Any misplay he made is overshadowed, for me, by his actions of last summer—which also prevented me from enjoying his best moments as I once would have.

2019-20 Outlook:

Watson plays a physical game that is heavily reliant on his making hits, absorbing hits, blocking shots, and occasionally fighting. It’s a style that’s very hard on the body of the player who relies on it, it wears away the player’s skill as well as their opponents’, and fourth-line grinders don’t tend to have terribly long careers as a result unless they’re able to get on their coach’s good side.

Watson does seem to have the favor of Predators management, so it’s possible that he sticks around, but that year-by-year decrease in shot and shot quality suppression is concerning. At 27, Watson is already past the average NHLer’s physical prime. Any improvements to his game he makes at this point are likely to depend on improving his awareness of the game and working to control the flow of play on the ice using the resources he has. For Watson, that would most likely be his size and reach—those are things that don’t go away, unlike speed, but he’s not the size of Zdeno Chára or Tyler Myers either.

It’s not impossible, but it also has to be weighed against years of hard use catching up to his body and slowing him down further. At the very least, to maximize both his career and his long-term well-being, he should really stop putting himself in situations where he’s likely to get punched in the head. That’s a request that some fourth-liners don’t feel themselves able to make of their coaches, though, because—rightly or wrongly—they feel like their ability to stay in the NHL is dependent on their willingness to drop the gloves.

The short version of all that is that I have no idea what the upcoming hockey season has in store for Watson. He could settle back into being an effective shutdown player in the NHL, or his play could decline to the point that he gets sent down to the AHL, or he could choose to retire for his own health.

The Letter Grade: D

I wavered back and forth over whether to give Watson an Incomplete instead of a letter grade—he did miss almost thirty games for medical reasons, and his worst defensive performance was in the couple of weeks leading up to that second absence from the team. In total he played less than half the season, missing 45 games.

On the other hand, I’ve done report cards for other players who missed time—though not quite so much time—to injury, and who were very obviously playing hurt before they left and/or came back before they were fully recovered, and I didn’t give them Incompletes. Some of my colleagues have valiantly written report cards for players who had only a handful of NHL games this past season, and managed to give them letter grades anyway. Introducing an Incomplete option this late in the game felt like cheating.

So Watson gets a D. His production in the offensive zone brought him up from the F that a player who had one role (shutdown defense) and performed it poorly would otherwise have gotten; to give him a C he would have needed to have broken even defensively, and he didn’t. Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino, and Mattias Ekholm helped him look a little better, but when it came down to it they would have been better off with another forward in Watson’s place.

The Fan Grade:

How would you grade Austin Watson’s season?

I’m not comfortable evaluating only his hockey.9

Player season statistics via hockey-reference.com.