Every team has areas they want to improve upon during the offseason, and the Sound Tigers were no different. With the departure of eight of their top 10 scorers from last season, the Sound Tigers needed to add some offense. A veteran presence was needed with eight rookies on the current roster. The Sound Tigers also hoped to bolster a penalty kill that finished 19th out of 30 teams in the AHL last year.
First year Sound Tiger Matt Watkins is entering his fourth pro season, and feels he’ll be able to contribute in each of those areas.
“I played all three forward positions last year, mostly center and left wing,” Watkins said. “I was a regular penalty killer and I bring a lot of speed to the game, which I think is my greatest asset. I can score goals and make plays too. I like to think I’m an all-around two-way forward who can play up and down the lineup.”
Watkins has proven he’s a consistent performer over the past three years in the AHL as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes organization. The Aylesbury, SK native recorded at least 10 goals in each of his first three pro seasons, and posted a career-high 25 assists and 36 points a season ago with Portland.
Many players from central and western Canada often play in major junior hockey in leagues such as the Western Hockey League to prepare for professional hockey. However, Watkins chose to play collegiately at the University of North Dakota, a perennial hockey powerhouse that was home to Sound Tigers forward Brock Nelson.
“Once I visited North Dakota I knew that’s where I wanted to play collegiately,” Watkins said. “I didn’t know a lot about college hockey coming from Saskatchewan, but after I did my research and went through the process I saw what a great place it was to play. College hockey is also a great developmental league for the NHL, and education was very important to me as well.”
Watkins’ played in 46 games as a freshman at North Dakota during the 2005-06 season and played alongside some players that hockey fans have grown very familiar with.
“We had a really big freshman class, 13 of us,” Watkins said. “A lot of notable guys like Jonathan Toews and T.J Oshie – There were about seven or eight of us out of that class alone that were playing in either the AHL or NHL last year. It was a great atmosphere and it was helpful to practice against such great players.”
Originally a fifth round pick (160th overall) of the Dallas Stars in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Watkins entered his pro career as a free agent after Dallas chose not to sign him coming out of North Dakota. He was invited to Phoenix Coyotes training camp for the 2009-10 season, and earned a contract in their system to play with San Antonio (AHL). After two seasons in San Antonio, the Coyotes moved their AHL affiliation to Phoenix, and Watkins got a taste of the Eastern Conference.
“They’re two very different conferences - the biggest difference is the travel,” Watkins said. “You flew from city to city in the West, and San Antonio was a really cool place to play. Last year we moved up to Portland which was a totally different place, but both situations were cool in their own way.”
Midway through last season, Watkins got the call that all hockey players dream of. He earned his first ever NHL call-up with the Coyotes and made his debut, playing one game against Los Angeles late last season.
“Phoenix had a few injuries, and a couple of us got called up from Portland,” Watkins said. “It was a great experience. I remember getting that phone call and then calling my parents. It was awesome, but a bit too short for me.”
After becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of last season, Watkins saw an opportunity with the Islanders organization to make an impact at both the NHL and AHL level.
“I looked at the positional needs in the organization and thought I had an opportunity both to play at the next level and be a go-to guy at this level,” Watkins said.
Although he’s entering his first season with the Sound Tigers, he has more pro experience under his belt than all returning members of last year’s team. He understands the dynamic of the group and is ready to contribute.
“Even though we’re a young team, there are a lot of guys who have grown up in this organization together,” Watkins said. “I’m not going to come in here and beat my chest as a leader, I’m going to be a solid pro every day for these guys and contribute to the team success. Leadership will come naturally within our group. I’m looking to be a part of this team and make an impact right away.”