In television terms, Seth Jones was the feature presentation at the Nashville Predators’ prospects conditioning camp Tuesday.
A big crowd of reporters awaited the fourth overall pick in last month’s NHL draft when he finished his first on-ice session of the week. Fans turned out, eager to get their first look at the player who figures to be next in the franchise’s ever-growing line of elite defensemen.
Austin Watson was the rerun.
The 21-year-old center was Nashville’s last first-round pick prior to Jones, the 18th overall selection in 2010. His rise through the professional ranks already has taken longer than any of the other five forwards the Predators selected in the first round. Thus, his presence at this event, which offers players instruction on things such as skating techniques, training and diet, is old hat.
“For me, being my fourth year here it’s nice to come in and kind of be a leader,” he said. “… We’ve learned a lot through these camps and my development has been great just due to coming here for a week every summer. … Even in your fourth year you learn something new every day.”
Camp opened with physicals Monday evening. Players were put through a track session early Tuesday morning before they finally got on the ice. Three more days of on-ice and track work remain (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday). The week also includes three weight-training sessions, a bit of yoga and community activities.
Watson is not the only one who has been through it all on multiple occasions, but among this year’s group he is the only first-rounder who previously has taken part. He is also one of only two players on hand who has played in an NHL game — six, to be exact, late last season when injuries decimated the roster. Forward Filip Forsberg, who appeared in five contests late last season, is the other.
“Austin came here as a tall, lean, skinny kid,” coach Barry Trotz said. “His first camp he was probably a little overwhelmed and realized he wasn’t in great shape. … Now I look at him and I go ‘There’s a man that’s getting really close to playing in the National Hockey League and is going to have a really good career.’”
David Legwand (second overall, 1998) was a full-time player one year after he was drafted, and Scott Hartnell (sixth overall, 2000) made the roster as an 18-year-old. Scottie Upshall (sixth overall, 2002) got an eight-game audition after his first training camp and likely would have become a full-time NHL player in his third year but that season, 2004-05, was canceled by a lockout. Alexander Radulov (15th overall, 2004) spent two years in junior hockey but just 11 games in the AHL before he was promoted, and Colin Wilson (seventh overall, 2008) played one more season of college hockey and half a season at Milwaukee before he established himself.
Watson spent two years in junior hockey after he was drafted and 2012-13 was his first full season as a professional. While still considered a prospect, that relative wealth of experience gives him the option of whether or not to take part in this week’s event.
“We ask him, but at this point he probably understands what the right answer is,” Trotz said. “With a guy like Austin, he’s at the point that this is probably his last one. I think he’s gone through that process. He’s gone from the student to a little bit of the mentor and to a little bit of a teacher now.”
Watson said players have asked him about what is to come but there’s only so much he can tell them.
“Definitely, your first camp is kind of crazy,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect and you’re obviously a little nervous. You’re in an NHL locker room. … It’s a cool experience for guys but also guys are nervous. It’s up to the older guys to make them feel more comfortable and say, ‘Just have fun with it.’
“It’s a great week. We do a lot of awesome things. You just have to have fun because as hard as it is if you’re not having fun it’s a lot harder.”
He ought to know.