Return of Ann Arbor's Austin Watson solidifies Preds' lines for playoffs
Nashville, Tenn. — The Nashville Predators mixed up the roster in February by bringing in four new players. It turns out the biggest addition may have come in the final week of the regular season.
Coach Peter Laviolette slid Austin Watson, the Ann Arbor native, back into the third line alongside Colton Sissons and Nick Bonino for the final three games and the forward has helped solidify the Predators’ lines heading into their first-round playoff matchup with the Dallas Stars.
“We had been waiting with just kind of a plan on the lineup of where we needed to get to and weren’t able to get there, but we had a plan for that line to go back together,” Laviolette said. “I think they’ve been excellent since they’ve been back togetehr. They look to me like they haven’t missed a beat from the playoffs last year.”
Watson had been unavailable for 27 games due to a suspension by the NHL and NHL Players Association for alcohol abuse. He also missed the first 18 games of the season after a suspension for domestic abuse was reduced from 27 games over an incident last June.
Not knowing when Watson would return, general manager David Poile traded for 6-foot-6 Brian Boyle and brought back Cody McLeod on Feb. 6. Poile then made a final move at the trade deadline acquiring veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to both bolster the power play unit and add size to the lineup.
Then the NHL reinstated Watson on March 18, and the Predators didn’t know what condition he would be in even though he was able to work out during his suspension. They sent him to Milwaukee and their AHL affiliate for a short conditioning stint, and he scored four goals in two games before returning.
“There was no rust at all,” Laviolette said.
Watson was back in the lineup April 2 in a win at Buffalo. Then he returned to Nashville where he came through with three assists in two games as Nashville clinched its second straight Central Division title.
Watson credits the chemistry he’s built over the past couple years with Bonino and Sissons.
“We all kind of think the game on the same level and try to do a lot of the same things, so when you know what your two other line mates are doing out there it makes it a little easier, and we love playing with each other and it’s been good so far,” Watson said Monday.
The Predators sure could use the line of Watson, Bonino and Sissons to replicate what they did a year ago when the line combined for 20 points in the playoffs. All but one goal came in Nashville’s first-round win over Colorado.
Boyle and Simmonds now are on Nashville’s fourth line with Calle Jarnkrok. Laviolette’s mixing and matching has settled down for now with a complete and healthy roster just in time for the postseason with the coach expecting to have everyone available for Game 1 against Dallas on Wednesday night.
Stars coach Jim Montgomery called the Predators an elite team with talented defensemen, goaltenders and postseason experience, especially with reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 and the second round last year.
“And then they added a bunch of pieces up front,” Montgomery said. “They were already deep, four lines. Now they’re even deeper. This is a team we’re going to have to have all six defensemen, have to have everybody on board. You’ve got to match your four lines with four lines.”
The Predators still are waiting for their second line, featuring another trade deadline acquisition in Mikael Granlund, to start contributing. Granlund is playing with center Kyle Turris and Craig Smith but has only one goal and five points in 16 games since the trade. Turris has just one goal and four assists since his return Feb. 7 from an injury.
Poile said some players can make their seasons in the playoffs, even after not having a good year. Watson already is proof of that opportunity.
“We need those type of stories, whether it’s Kyle or a couple more,” Poile said.
“When you win rounds and you win the Stanley Cup, there are a whole bunch of stories like that.”