Sun Dec 19 10:55pm EST
When a top prospect's junior team is well down in the standings, there's always talk.
Six months after the NHL's Nashville Predators selected him 18th overall in June, Austin Watson's Peterborough Petes sit 19th overall — second-last — in the Ontario Hockey League at the holiday break. However, he and the Petes finished the first half on a mini-roll, which the team going 6-5-0-0 over its last 11 games. That included four road wins over teams which are in the top half of their respective conferences — Saginaw, Plymouth, Kingston and Ottawa.
That's something coming from a team which, a month ago today, was stuck on four wins under GM Dave Reid and head coach Mike Pelino, both first-timers. One star had left town — centre Ryan Spooner was traded to Kingston in a four-player, two-pick deal. A host of veterans had departed. Anyone with a soft spot for former GM Jeff Twohey — essentially, everyone who follows the OHL — was wondering what was going on. It's a little rosier now, but then again it is almost Christmas.
"Any time you're winning, everybody's happy and as long as you can keep going with that, I don't think anybody wants to go anywhere," is how Watson phrases his outlook on staying in the Liftlock City.
That's open-ended, but everything in hockey is transient. Meantime, the Petes are finally seeing results. The nascent big three of Watson, 18, along with sniper Matt Puempel and centre Alan Quine, each 17, led that comeback 3-2 win in Ottawa last Friday. (Quine was the centre who came in return for Spooner; more on that in a sec.) The Petes had 51 shots on goal for the night; they also held one of the OHL's best offensive teams to zero even-strength shots in the third period. If not for a buzzer-beater screen shot by the 67's Thomas Nesbitt in the return game Saturday, Peterborough would have earned 3-of-4 possible points vs. a division leader.
"We've really been preaching the same message all along," Reid said when asked about the slow start. "I really think it was just a culture change throughout our transition. A lot of it, it was us learning the players, the players learning what the expectations are from the coaching and the management side. That's just taken a little while to gel ... The game Friday was a perfect example of team that just didn't quit. We got down two early on the road to a nationally ranked team. It would have been easy to say, 'boy, we worked hard but we didn't have it.' We just kept going."
It can tough to judge Watson on stats, since he was drafted as a Ryan Kesler-esque defensive forward. However, he has eight points in his past five games, including the overtime goal last Friday in Ottawa.
Reid says Watson, who is the oldest in a family of 10 children, is starting to take "ownership" with the Petes.
"That's just trying to lead by example," Watson, an Ann Arbor, Mich., native said when the GM's comments were related to him. "Anybody can talk and say what to do, but I think it [leadership] shows more by your actions, body language. Going out there and giving 100 per cent, leading the way offensively."
Quine feeling fine
That game-winner last Friday entailed Quine racing off for a change so Watson could stride into the slot and snap home a pass from Puempel. It was fitting since Peterborough's rally from an early 2-0 deficit began with Pelino putting the trio on the same line. Previously, they had only skated together on power plays.
"Guys are buying in and having fun at the same time," said Quine, who played on Canada's U18 team in August.
The second overall pick in the 2009 OHL priority selection's numbers, post-trade, compare very well with Spooner's. Quine has 12 goals and 19 points in 17 games with the Petes. Spooner, the older player who also cost two second-round selections, has nine goals and 17 points in 15 games with the Frontenacs.
"The team game is a huge game here in Peterborough," Quine, who is playing his way into consideration for the NHL draft, said when asked to compare his current team to his old one. "The guys are all in it to get the win, not maybe individual stats or do individual things. The guys all buy in and do things together."
That kind of vibe can lift everyone's spirits and sometimes their prospects. It certainly has given Watson a boost in his first year after being drafted.
"For me, I'm starting to get more points and chip in more offensively," Watson said. "I've enjoyed played hockey over the last 10 games, hopefully I can keep it rolling."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. (Photo: OHL Images.)