There’s a lot to like about Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rookie defenseman Noah Welch. He’s big, smart and can create offense, and his college record speaks for itself. The Brighton, Massachusetts native was a bona fide college star in his four years with the Harvard Crimson, decorated consistently as an All-Ivy League, All-ECAC or All-American defenseman. He projects as high as a top-two blueliner in the NHL, and is noted for his ability to read the play and has great skating to put himself in the best positions.
With the NCAA competition behind him now, Pittsburgh’s second round pick in 2001 has moved on to bigger and better things, and all the challenges that pro hockey brings. And so far he’s doing a fantastic job, and will find himself heading to Winnipeg, Manitoba next month to play in his first AHL All-Star Classic. The 23-year-old was not only named to the PlanetUSA Team, but was voted a starter by fans around the league.
But like all players who make the transition from college to the pros, Welch had to adjust to changes such as a busier schedule and increased speed and quality of play in the AHL, and it wasn’t always easy. The hardest part for Welch was learning and applying the Penguins system, but thanks to some help from a couple of veterans, life in the minors is coming a bit easier these days.
“I think the first couple of games were challenging for me because the different systems that we are playing. They’re great and they work but they’re not too easy to pick up or to execute,” Welch told Hockey’s Future this week. “But I got a lot of help from guys like Chris Kelleher and Alain Nasreddine, veteran guys who’ve been around for a while. Once you get the systems down it makes the adjustment a lot easier and then you can start working on making plays.”
His swift progress is especially impressive because life as a defenseman has been made more difficult due to recent rule changes in an attempt to boost scoring and make the game more exciting and entertaining for the fans. For the most part, that’s seemed to work. But has it altered Welch’s style of play?
“Yes and no,” he said. “I think last year, in college, they tried to do the same thing as far as penalties go with the obstruction and things like that. So, if anything, you need to change the way you play as a defenseman. You can’t use your stick as much, you have to use your legs. That’s something I’ve kind of taken to heart and tried to focus on instead of hooking guys down low and trying to get good body position.
“And then, on the flip side, hopefully you can get a chance on the power play, and as a guy that’s out there right now, that’s where I try to work on getting my shots through and finding sticks in front, and things like that.”
Welch believes the ability to play at a high level every night is a key to becoming a successful pro, and it is something that already stands out about this young man. He is rarely prone to error, and his consistency has put him in good stead in Wilkes-Barre, and has given himself a good shot at being called up to Pittsburgh in the near future. There is no shortage of Welch’s teammates waiting for him in the NHL, with no less than seven players from the opening night roster in Wilkes-Barre spending some time in Pittsburgh, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Ryan Whitney and Erik Christensen.
There is no doubt that Welch will one day make it to the NHL, it’s only a matter of when. But don’t tell him that, he doesn’t want to think about those kinds of things.
“It’s great to see guys get called up, it proves that it does happen. As far as I’m concerned I’m trying not to speculate when I’m going to get called up. All you can do is try to get better every day down here and develop my skills so that if I do get the call, I’ll be a lot better at that time than the day before and that’s how I look at it. You could drive yourself crazy if you have a certain date that you’re expecting to get the call. I dream of playing in the NHL one day and I’d like to develop and fulfil that dream. Right now I’m just having fun and getting better. I’m on a good team and we’re winning, so I don’t have anything to complain about right now.”
And yes, unlike the parent Penguins in the NHL, the Baby Penguins are winning. A lot in fact. After starting off the season with an 8-1 demolition of Bridgeport, the Penguins went on one of the longest unbeaten streaks in pro hockey history when they went 20-0-3 before finally being toppled 3-1 by the Manitoba Moose on December 9. Welch believes the team’s hot start helped his adjustment to the pro game significantly, improving his personal and the general confidence.
The team continues to lead the league in wins (29) and points (61) thanks to the contributions of not only newcomers forced into their line-up due to the slew of recent call-ups, but also the steady play of both veterans and rookies alike who have been on this roster since Day 1.
The most significant change though has been the replacement of head coach Michel Therrien who has been promoted to Pittsburgh and replaced by Hall of Famer and NHL 500 goal scorer Joey Mullen, who brings a more laid back approach in comparison to taskmaster Therrien.
“Coach Mullen has done a great job. Our record shows a couple of slip-ups but I think we had so much success early on that it was going to happen but he’s done a great job. You know there are pros and cons, but he’s a great guy and a great coach and you know he has an unbelievable background and being able to learn from him is a pleasure.”
The change has done wonders for Welch’s point total, breaking a 16-game drought just after Mullen was appointed and has scored three goals in his short tenure. Despite his history as a power-play quarter back with Harvard, offensive contributions are not what Welch uses to measure a good game.
The 6’4, 212-pound blueliner had a tremendously successful career with the Crimson, putting up 76 points (23 goals, 53 assists) in 129 games over the course of his college career — impressive numbers for a guy who doesn’t consider himself an offensive-minded defenseman.
“Sophomore year, I had a great year offensively, pretty much because I had Tim Pettit, Dominic Moore and Tom Cavanagh on my power play unit. I think in my junior year, I tried to do a little too much offensively, jumping up into the play too much. I didn’t have a great year at all. So senior year, when I realized I was close to playing pro hockey, I knew I was not going to get there on offense alone. I’m not an offensive defenseman, I don’t have skills like a Gonchar or a Pronger or a Rob Blake, so I really took it to heart to focus on my own end because I knew that’s what I needed to do to be successful at this level.”
Through 36 games this season, he has the modest total of 11 points, (four goals, seven assists) but knows in time that the points will come. He has also learned to respect the players around you.
“If I get a chance to jump up in the offense I’ll take it but I don’t want to force anything. There are too many guys who are good at this level to try to force stuff, and they’ll just shove it right down your throat. I think eventually I’d like to consider myself a two-way defenseman but to be honest with you, I like killing penalties more than being on the power play.
“But jumping up in the play is something I’m becoming more comfortable with in the AHL, and I think eventually, I will become a little more offensive.”
Away from the score sheet, Welch has the potential to be an excellent leader, a trait that will surely help him on the road to his dream of playing in the NHL. He’s the kind of character that inspires teammates with a strong work ethic and powerful presence. Welch was made captain of Harvard for his senior year, something that honored him and something he took it very seriously. As a senior he had a responsibility to mentor the young players, and now finds himself as the one seeking advice from others. Despite not holding the same sway amongst the players as he did in college, he still believes that by working hard he can continue to lead in his own way.
“I try to bring some emotion and some hard work,” Welch said. “I’m a young guy, so my job is just to keep it simple and do the little things right and that’s what I try to do every night. I just want to try to get better every night, and hopefully, if I can work hard, the guys will notice that.”
His attitude towards the game is completely unselfish. That is summed up when he was asked whether the night on November 5th against the Philadelphia Phantoms, where he achieved his first goal to go along with an assist and a fight to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick, was his highlight of the season thus far.
“I think on a personal level the highlight for me was when we won in Norfolk and eclipsed the record for consecutive games won on the road. That was definitely the highlight. Getting the Gordie Howe hat trick was nice too, especially how it happened. I got the goal then the assist and then I went out kind of looking for the fight. I definitely didn’t win the fight but it was good to kind of break the ice and end up getting that.”
It’s that team-oriented and hard working attitude that makes Noah Welch so valuable to the Penguins organization.
The biggest challenge Welch faces now as the AHL reaches its halfway point will be whether or not the big defenseman can endure the marathon that is the AHL schedule, one that is more than twice as long as he’s used to playing in college. Welch played his 34th game of the season on January 6th against the Philadelphia Phantoms – a 4-2 Penguins win in which he scored a goal.
“Tonight, if I were still at Harvard, would have been my last game pretty much,” he said after that contest. “It’s a tough grind, not only physically, but mentally to get up for each game.”
Despite that, Welch isn’t in the biggest hurry to leave Wilkes-Barre. He’s thoroughly enjoying his time playing in front of the fantastic crowds at Wachovia Arena.
“The fans are unbelievable. I think it’s the best place to play in the A. The crowd’s great but it’s not just in the arena, it’s around town. People are really passionate about hockey here. It’s great to play in front of a sellout crowd here at home and it does help too, especially when you’re playing your third game in three days and when you’re mentally tired and a little physically beat up, you get that extra juice from the crowd. I think that definitely helps and has been a big part of our success this season.”
Adrian Barclay and Colleen Greene contributed to this article. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.