Austin Watson was only doing what Austin Watson does. Midway through the third period of the Jan. 20 CHL prospects game in Windsor, Ontario, Team Cherry, up by a goal, took two straight penalties and went down five men to three. On the bench, Watson's former teammate Taylor Hall begged Cherry's assistant coach Brian Kilrea to put Watson out for the kill. "I told Killer, you might not know this guy, but he blocks shots like nobody's business," Hall said after the game. "He's the best shot-blocker in the OHL, maybe the CHL. He's fearless."
Watson blocked a pair of shots on the penalty kill, one of which hit him squarely on the left ankle, breaking it at the joint. Team Cherry won the game, 4-2, but Watson's bum wheel would require surgery and he'd miss a month. It was a rough break for kid in his draft year who had recently waived a no-trade clause to be shipped from the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires to the Peterborough Petes. "Waiving that no-trade clause was the hardest thing I've had to do in my hockey career," Watson says. "I loved it in Windsor, but from a hockey standpoint, Peterborough was going to give me a great opportunity to play a larger role in the team's success, and I had to take that opportunity to prove I can be one of those players."
In Windsor, Watson was a little lost in the shuffle. Hall and defenseman Cam Fowler, ranked Nos. 2 and 5 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of 2010 draft picks, consumed the lion's share of ice time. But despite playing fewer minutes, and hardly any on the power play, Watson still managed to score at a .82 points-per-game pace in 42 games with the Spitfires, tallying 11 goals and 23 assists.
After his Jan. 10 trade, it took Watson slightly more than half a period to earn the respect of Peterborough's fans, who were quickly enamored with his constant hustle and aggressive play along the boards. But Watson played just three games as a Pete before busting that ankle. Still, he calls the injury a blessing in disguise; he came back with something to prove. Knowing that, Peterborough head coach Ken McRae threw Watson into the fire, giving him big minutes on the top line between fellow 2010 draft prospect Ryan Spooner and OHL rookie of the year Matt Puempel. Watson also saw lots of ice time on the power play and penalty kill.
The result? In just 10 total games with the Petes, Watson had nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points, more than double his points-per-game with the Spitfires. Scouts were so impressed that his Central Scouting ranking also jumped from 25th at the midterm to 14th at the final. "In Windsor, Watson was a good player, and you could always see he had potential," says one Western Conference scout. "But his game really took off offensively when he went to Peterborough, because he got to play more top line and power play minutes. When you get to see a guy play in more situations, you see there's more to him."
For Watson, "more" includes all the little things, like blocking shots and killing penalties and going to all the scary areas of the ice. "I like to get down low and use my body to win puck battles," says the 18-year-old Ann Arbor native. "I try to bury my chances when I have them."
Coach McRae's list of praises reads more like a laundry list: "Watty shoots the puck well. He has good quickness. He can get from the corner to the net pretty quickly with the puck and protects it very well. His first few strides are very quick. He has a good set of hands, is great in front of the net, has a very good stick for redirecting pucks and is going to have great size."
Like most teenagers who haven't quite yet grown into their bodies, Watson, currently almost 6-4 and 185 pounds, has some weight to put on. And adding weight will address the only real issue in his game: his skating needs to be stronger and more powerful. "I'd like to be 195 pounds," he says. "I have a little bit of an awkward, big body frame, so I need to get bigger to get quicker and more powerful. This summer, I'll be working on my skating for sure."
But before then, Watson will try to help the U.S. to a gold medal in the World U-18 Championships in Belarus; the bronze and gold medal games are April 23. Beyond that, the combine, the draft, and the NHL. "I just have to keep working my hardest," Watson says. "If it happens, it happens."