Austin Watson could have come out of the 2010-11 season with a bad taste in his mouth.
He was on a terrible team and his play in the early going was admittedly sub-standard.
Yet that did nothing to diminish the hunger of the Nashville Predators 2010 first-round draft choice to live up to expectations and become a solid NHL performer.
Even before he came to town for this week’s Predators prospects conditioning camp, which kicked off Tuesday, Watson had sought other ways to improve. He recently spent time in Calgary with director of player development Martin Gelinas and turned his attention toward — among other things — what he eats.
“That was a real learning experience for me,” Watson said. “I could see what I was doing wrong and the things I wasn’t eating right or the things I liked that weren’t good for me. To be able to incorporate that into my diet has been huge for me the last few weeks.”
In recent years, Nashville’s No. 1 picks have feasted on the opposition at lower levels of the sport between being drafted and the start of their professional careers.
Colin Wilson went back to Boston University after being selected seventh overall in 2008, led his team to the NCAA championships and was named the 2009 USA Hockey college player of the year.
Ryan Ellis led Windsor to a second straight Memorial Cup championship in 2010 after he was Nashville’s top pick in 2009. He remained in junior hockey last season and accumulated a warehouse worth of trophies and awards.
Watson, on the other hand, toiled for the Peterborough Petes, who finished with the second-fewest victories in the Ontario Hockey League in 2010-11. He finished nowhere near the top 20 in scoring and, in fact, was second on his team — one point behind someone who played 13 fewer games.
“Last year was a little bit of a tough situation with his team,” Nashville’s chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty said. “But the second half of the year, he really hit his stride and he ended up with 34 goals. We expect him to step up his game and continue to develop.
“Whether it’s team or personal — nothing’s ever going to be perfect. We expect all our guys to find ways to persevere through that and get better from it. I think he probably learned a lot with the trying situation.”
Watson ultimately finished with 34 goals and 34 assists for 68 points — all career-highs. His goal total was more than double what he scored in the previous two seasons combined.
Because his team did not make the playoffs, he joined the Milwaukee Admirals late in the season and appeared in five American Hockey League games on a professional tryout agreement.
“That was a great learning experience to see what pro hockey is all about and kind of see what I need to work on,” he said.
The reality is that he will not be back in Milwaukee anytime soon.
He has one year of eligibility remaining in junior hockey, which means he either has to be in the NHL or returned to his junior club, and the Predators typically are hesitant to ask their prospects to bite off more than they can chew.
“Most likely he’ll be back [in junior hockey],” Kealty said. “There’s no rush with any of these guys. We just want him — like everyone else — to keep developing, to keep getting better, get bigger, stronger and more explosive.”
If that’s what happens, Watson insists he is prepared to sink his teeth into things right from the start.
“Going back there, there’s expectations,” he said. “Sometimes you can get caught up in that and in what happened throughout the [draft] summer. It’s an awesome feeling and you can dwell on that a little too much, but it’s something you have to take with a grain of salt. The past is past. It’s a great honor to be picked that high but you have to prove it every day.
“… I had a tough start finding my game, but as the season went on I had to work on things that I needed to work on. I ended the year real hot, so anytime you have a year where you’re playing your best hockey at the end that’s good.”