A pair of former San Jose Sharks draft picks are no longer part of the organization, as the team opted not to sign them before the expiration of their club rights today. 2012 sixth round pick Clifford Watson became an unrestricted free agent today, the Sharks confirmed. 2013 fifth round pick Gage Ausmus was also unsigned, but he signed with the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles earlier this month.
Under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams retain the draft rights of an NCAA player until August 15 of their graduating year, provided the player remains enrolled in school at the start of their senior season. Watson and Ausmus graduated this year, four years after enrolling at Michigan Tech and the University of North Dakota, respectively.
Watson, a 23-year-old defenseman, was the 78th-best NHL prospect at the NCAA level after the 2015-16 season, according to our friends at sister site SB Nation College Hockey:
Watson is an extremely effective defenseman because he keeps the game so simple. He's a defensive-minded defenseman that doesn't provide a lot of offensive upside, but he is exceptional at winning pucks in the defensive zone and then making a strong first pass to help his team get the puck out of the zone while maintaining possession. He won't be an exciting player at the next level, but he'll play his position well enough to let the others around him shine.
The blueliner did not make the cut this season, but scored a career-high 15 points in 45 while captaining the Huskies for the second consecutive season. He attended San Jose’s development camp last summer, but did not return this summer. Watson is the second player from the 2012 draft class not to sign with the Sharks. Fourth round pick Christophe Lalancette, who San Jose traded up to select, also did not sign. Fellow 2012 picks Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, Joakim Ryan, and Danny O’Regan remain with the organization, and all but Ryan have made their NHL debut.
The 22-year-old Ausmus, a defenseman who, much like Watson, captained his college team and did not attend San Jose’s development camp this year, scored 29 points in 143 college games. He captained North Dakota to a national title in 2016. Following the trade of 2013 first round pick Mirco Mueller earlier this summer, defenseman Michael Brodzinski is the only draft pick from that year currently under contract with the Sharks. 2013 seventh round pick Jacob Jackson will be a senior at Watson’s alma mater next season.
Given each player’s limited offensive upside, and the organization’s crowded blueline in the NHL and AHL, it’s not too surprising San Jose opted not to re-sign Watson and Ausmus. The Sharks simply have better options in the system, and re-signing the two would have left just three open contract spots below the 50-contract maximum.
2017 Hobey Baker award winner Will Butcher, a teammate of Sharks 2016 second round pick Dylan Gambrell at the University of Denver, also became a free agent today. The defenseman informed the Colorado Avalanche, who selected Butcher in the fifth round in the 2013 draft, that he would explore free agency. The Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toronto Maple Leafs are all pursuing the 22-year-old Wisconsin native, according to the Detroit News.