NHL draftee Watson falls into Tech’s lap

HOUGHTON – Cliff Watson, an NHL draft pick and shut-down defenseman, literally fell in Michigan Tech’s lap less than three months before the 2013-14 season.

The Appleton, Wis., native was a sixth-round selection of the San Jose Sharks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and he had originally committed to Ohio State, until former head coach Mark Osiecki was fired in April. Watson de-committed shortly after, Tech coach Damon Whitten contacted him, Watson visited Houghton July 29-30 and committed less than a week later.

“A lot of times, as much as players pick the school, they pick the coach, too,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “I think that’s a situation where Mark, being a real good and well-known coach of defensemen, once that happened, I think (Watson) re-opened his recruitment. We’re just fortunate enough that we needed a defenseman, had an opportunity there, and the way it’s worked out, it’s really going to benefit us.”

Landing an NHL draft pick late in the summer is obviously rare, but it’s even more fortunate for Tech because senior defenseman Dan Sova just had surgery again on his wrist about a week ago, and he’ll be out two months from then. After already losing two captain defensemen in Carl Nielsen and Steven Seigo, Tech’s blue line was already a bit thin, and Justin Fillion is a question mark after the coaching staff addressed some team issues with him. The ball is in Fillion’s court about returning. Former D commit Marcus Ericsson also had to re-open his recruitment after academic issues.

“(Watson) is a good player and obviously he was drafted because of his potential,” Pearson said. “He has a chance to be a really good hockey player. … He’s played two years in the USHL, so he’s coming in here and probably going to be our most ready defenseman to step in and help. It’s all timing. We were just very fortunate that he was available and things worked out. We’re excited to have him.”

And Watson, who played at Dee Stadium in tournaments as a kid, was excited to catch on with Tech so late in the process.

“With (Osiecki) not being coach (at Ohio State) anymore, it didn’t feel right, so I de-committed earlier this summer after the season,” Watson said. “Late in the summer, late in the recruiting process, lots of rosters were filled and not much (scholarship) money was available. After Tech found out, they called me later in the summer after the San Jose (development) camp.

“Coach Whitten called me and said they had a unique opportunity for me. … It was a no brainer, I fell in love with Tech.”

Watson, the oldest of four hockey-playing boys in his family, has been playing since he was 4, originally as a forward. He played D in squirts and has been with it since, playing in Sheboygan, at Appleton United High School (18 goals, 22 assists in 21 games), with the Green Bay Jr. Gamblers and with Team Wisconsin in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League.

During his senior year in high school, he left for Sioux City to play with the USHL’s Musketeers, where he played for two years. In year one, he contributed eight assists, but had a minus-13 rating in 58 games. Last year, he had three goals and eight assists, but with a plus-10 rating in 62 games.

“His first year in the USHL he struggled, but last year played much better, especially in the second half,” Pearson said. “… He doesn’t have great offensive numbers, but he does have some offensive instincts. We’re going to encourage him to jump up the ice and help out, but obviously last year at Sioux City he played against all the other teams’ best players. He was used in a real shut-down role and did a real good job on it, so we see him in that role.”

He, Shane Hanna and Chris Leibinger, as freshmen, could all be in the mix for regular rotation minutes right away.

“A lot of pressure is going to be on our freshmen. They’re going to get a lot of looks,” said Pearson, who knows defense is the most inexperienced area on the Huskies.

Watson relishes the chance to log big minutes right away in the shut-down role he’s become comfortable with.

“It was pretty exciting hearing the opportunity they have for me,” said Watson, who had no problem clearing everything academically to start a degree in sports and fitness management. “In my meeting on my visit, they basically told me I’d be a guy playing against top lines, shutting down top lines, playing good minutes with lots of opportunity.”

Tech hopes to have him around four years, but as was obvious with Jujhar Khaira and Pearson’s track record at Michigan of churning out pro-ready players, Watson is taking it a year at a time.

“I’d like to stay four years and be a part of a building process with the team, but it all depends on my development. If somebody thinks I’m ready to go make an impact at the next level, I’ll make the decision at that point. Right now, it’s all about developing for the year I’m going into.”