In many ways, J.D. Watt is on the doorstep of a fresh start.
Later this month, the hulking Cremona-raised forward will be in California, looking to turn heads at Los Angeles Kings training camp. This after last month signing an American Hockey League contract with the Kings' farm club affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs.
Watt played his first three seasons of professional hockey with the Las Vegas Wranglers, Utah Grizzlies, San Antonio Rampage, and primarily the Quad Cities and Abbotsford Heat franchise, the Calgary Flames' minor league affiliate. With his first professional contract expired, Watt went into last summer as a free agent and in search of an organization that offered the best fit for his development.
“Obviously, you want an NHL deal but with my last few seasons, I think I'm probably lucky to have an opportunity with another team,” Watt said.
“I'm really looking forward to it and can't wait to get going again.”
What Watt is referring to is his parting of ways with the Calgary Flames organization last season. The Flames drafted Watt in the fourth round of the 2005 entry draft, after he proved his worth as an impactful physical presence with the Vancouver Giants. Watt's contract with the Flames was terminated in January of last year.
“It was portrayed in the media that I walked out on the team. I wouldn't say it went like that,” Watt said, adding that he was hopeful that the situation wouldn't blemish his reputation.
“When you don't know a person or a situation and you only know what you read or hear — I think going into contract negotiations this summer, I had a little question mark behind my name.
“Whether teams have liked me in the past or not, they're always a little bit leery to sign a guy that they're not exactly sure about.”
In terms of the end of his relationship with the Flames, Watt said the problem was nothing to do with the organization.
“You play four years in an organization and you want to get more of an opportunity but that didn't happen,” he said.
“The main problem for me last year in Abbottsford was the coach, Jim Playfair. It just didn't work out.
“It was more a case of he didn't like me and I didn't like him and not necessarily all his fault, it's my fault as well.
“You learn from the past and move on.”
After finishing with the Flames, Watt suited up with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage.
With the Rampage, Watt registered two points and 13 penalty minutes in 10 games.
“I really enjoyed my time in San Antonio,” Watt said, praising coach Ray Edwards.
“It was a great group of guys.”
Pleased with his play, not sticking with the Rampage was a numbers game, with 16 forwards already on contract.
“It was a good situation and I learned a lot from it,” he said.
Looking at Manchester, Watt said he and his agent had their sights set on opportunity.
“They were in a spot where they only had 12 forwards signed and we felt that was a good spot for me,” Watt said.
In terms of his role with the squad, Watt said it's too early to know — especially, since not yet having met the coach or his new teammates.
Noted for his heavy-hitting style of play, Watt notes the team has a high-end enforcer in Justin Johnson.
“He'll probably look after the fighting department,” Watt said, adding that the team has a number of players that can hold their own when things get rough.
“I guess my role will be kind of an agitator, play hard, physical and fight when I'm called upon.”
Despite having his name on an AHL contract, Watt's NHL ambitions remain realistic.
“The positive about me going to an NHL camp, even though I'm not on an NHL contract, it's a place for me to be seen — whether it's the Kings or 28 other NHL teams,” he said.
“I just want to go and have a good camp.”
But on an AHL contract, Watt can still be signed to an NHL contract by any other team. The Kings have the right to match an offer sent Watt's way.
Watt's off-season regimen started March 1, working with Edge School for Athletes trainer Tommy Powers.
“I really enjoyed it and I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life,” Watt said.
“Now I just want to go out there and prove that in L.A.”
Last month, Watt took to the ice in the Wild Rose Hockey Challenge, a charity game hosted by MP Blake Richards. The event raised $83,000 for an assortment of Victims Services within Richards' Wild Rose constituency.
“We had an excellent time,” said Watt, who joined other NHL and AHL players in the annual fundraiser. This year's game left Richards with a broken nose, after an accident in the second period while in pursuit of the puck.
“It's too bad that Blake Richards busted his nose up,” Watt said.
“But that's a story to talk about for the future.”