The current state of the Milwaukee Admirals roster heading into the 2016-17 season features a roster the strengths of which hasn’t been seen in a long time. There are numerous players sitting on the edge of being an NHL call-up. Some are veterans. Some are prospects right on the radar. And some are prospects that can shoot into that radar this season.
It’s shouldn’t be that surprising that players such as Petter Granberg and Austin Watson would be high on that list of potential quickfire call-ups. Both went through the waiver wire process and were assigned to the Admirals to start their season in the AHL. With the exception of a conditioning assignment that Granberg had last season both were in the NHL season for the whole of the 2015-16 season. Yet, of the two, one seems more capable of achieving an NHL return during the course of this season while the other one is named Watson.
I still find it curious how Watson’s 2015-16 season played out. Last season was the first part of a two-year contract that saw the first stint work as a two-way deal before turning into a standard NHL one-way contract. It seems the reverse of that contract is playing out right now: NHL the first half, AHL the second half. The only explanation I can cook up on last season is that head coach Peter Laviolette must have liked enough of what Watson could provide to either (a) play him (b) keep him as a rotational forward option. At some point he must have been close enough to being sent down, as evidenced by a fully prepped Admirals road jersey seen at the team’s Garage Sale this off-season, but it never came to be. He spent the whole of the season with the Nashville Predators and logged 57 games in the process.
Now that Watson has fallen down to the AHL there is a simple and concise question to ask: now what?
Watson already has 229 games of AHL experience to his name. He is one of only three Admirals in the team’s AHL history to score 20 goals or more in each of his first three seasons: 20 goals (2012-13), 22 goals (2013-14), and 26 goals (2014-15). He was also one of the most durable players the Admirals featured during those three seasons. The only reason he missed any AHL time during those three seasons were due to a 6-game spell in the NHL with the Predators during the 2012-13 season. Beyond that? He has a 100% record of showing up to work. Which, given his shot blocking prowess on the Admirals penalty kill at the time, is mightily impressive that he never was dinged up enough to facilitate an unhealthy scratch.
He’s a solid AHL level player. The numbers scream it. His versatility at the AHL level shows it: center, wing, penalty kill, power-play, etc. And yet here we are. Now what?
I feel the reason why we are where we are with the Predators first round draft pick from the 2010 NHL Draft has more to do with the prospect pool around Watson than Watson himself. He is a very strong and polished player. Watson isn’t the sort of player you would pick out and say he made boneheaded play after boneheaded play. The problem is, compared to all that are bottled up behind him, Watson is never going to be able to provide the high level speed and skill to go with his polished game. Frédérick Gaudreau is a perfect example of just the sort of player that is comparable to Watson and should be considered a better option as a call-up than Watson. Gaudreau has Watson’s versatility and range of use all while being a much faster skater with the skill to be more of a threat on offense. Then comes the freight train of names that could pretty much say the same: Calle Järnkrok, Viktor Arvidsson, Miikka Salomäki, Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, Pontus Åberg, and Vladislav Kamenev.
The only true player in the mix where you can have an argument over “Watson vs.” would be Cody Bass. Even that becomes a pretty cut and dry case. Bass is a chiseled veteran with great face-off skills and provides a far -far- more physical element to his game than Watson does. As big of a forward as Watson is, with the exception of one awesome hit to Ryan Getzlaf, he never really used his body as a battering ram to compensate for a lack of pace that others around him feature to shadow over him. Bass does lay the body down to bowl people over. Salomäki has the reputation as a bull in a china shop for his checking abilities. Watson? He’s just an alright smooth player that goes about his business. Which is fine. But it’s not a long term skill set to be an NHL level talent.
What Watson’s 2016-17 season is going to really need isn’t just what everyone knows he’s capable of at the AHL level but a display of what he hasn’t been capable of in the NHL level. He needs to start being a force to be reckoned with. He needs to start grinding people up to go along with his knack for scoring and penalty killing that he is already good at. Watson needs that extra dimension to his game or else I hazard to guess what sort of contracts would be on offer for him in the 2017-18 season. He already fell through the cracks of a waiver wire process. No other team in the NHL wanted him. That shouldn’t be met with anger or despair. It should be met with a wake-up call.
The talent level in hockey right now is shooting to the moon. Next off-season Watson will be 25-years old with a smattering of NHL performances. Watson could either become just who Bass was for the organization last season or Max Reinhart. One of those names are in the NHL. The other is in Germany. Watson’s response this season will go a long way to see whether or not he reclaims an NHL opportunity. And that goes for with the Predators organization and beyond.
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