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Welch Hoping to Stick in Tampa Bay

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

While most of his teammates headed to the locker room after a brief morning skate on game day, Noah Welch often stayed on the ice earlier this season. He had more work to do, much of it without the puck.

Such is the job of the seventh defenseman.

“The situation was pretty repetitive,” Welch said. “Mentally, it just became difficult.”
After losing a big chance due to a shoulder injury in the 2007-08 season, the Florida Panthers traded for three veteran defenseman. That left Welch and Cory Murphy on the outside of the lineup looking in, for the most part.

Murphy was claimed on waivers by the Lightning in Jan. 9 and has prospered since, especially on the power play. The Lightning are giving Welch, acquired along with a third-round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft for Steve Eminger March 4, an opportunity to do the same the final month of the season.

“I’m excited to be here,” said Welch, 26. “I did a lot of watching this year. It’s going to be nice to just play hockey.”

Welch, from Brighton, Mass., played in 23 games for the Panthers before the trade deadline but logged more than nine minutes in only four of them. He said he found himself, at times, going out of his way to make a big hit to try and impress and sometimes got out of position. The aim for Welch is to play the simple game, winning battles and being in position.

“He uses his size well, playing down low and stopping team’s cycles,” Murphy said. “It’s an opportunity for him to get some time here. That’s exactly how he’s looking at it.”

Welch averaged more than 20 minutes in his first four games with the Lightning, going into a game against the Panthers Saturday.

He is focused on learning. Fast.

“A lot of it is just being in game situations and how you respond,” Welch said. “That’s something I’m looking forward to, being thrown into the fire. It’s a matter of being in the same situations again, after watching them on film and working on it in practice, then hopefully making the right reads after that.”

Welch has always had the pedigree to be a top-six defensemen, but his career has taken many twists and turns.

He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins 54th overall in 2001, before attending Harvard. The government major played four years in Cambridge, Mass., accumulating 23 goals and 76 points in helping the Crimson to the NCAA tournament all four years. He captained the team in 2005 and was named a first-team ECAC all star.

Welch worked hard on his studies for four years and now he will be studied in the future. Welch, who already had committed to being an organ donor, decided to donate his brain after death to The Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of medicine for concussion research.

Hall of Fame hockey player Pat LaFont aine and former United States soccer standout Cindy Parlow will also be part of the study. Welch, who has had one concussion that he knows of, decided to step up after speaking with former Harvard athlete Chris Nowinski, who was a member of the Sports Legacy Institute.

“It wasn’t a big decision for me,” Welch said. “It’s not about how many concussions you’ve had. It’s more about the fact you are playing a contact sport and you get a blow to the head every once and a while. Anything they can gain from it, that’s great.”

A lot of it is just being in game situations and how you respond. That’s something I’m looking forward to, being thrown into the fire. - Noah Welch
Much of Welch’s first professional season in 2005-06 was with Wilkes-Barre of the American Hockey League, but he also recorded four points (1 goal, 3 assists) in five games with the Penguins. Welch played with four different teams in 2006-07, including 22 with the Penguins. He was named the AHL All-Star Game with Wilkes-Barre.

“I was up and down with Pittsburgh, because I did not have to clear waivers,” Welch said. “I thought I played well. It was a good experience.”

The Panthers noticed and requested him in exchange for veteran Gary Roberts, Feb. 27 of 2007. Welch spent time with Rochester of the AHL and played two games with Florida. Combined in 2006-07, he was a plus-12.

Everything seemed set up for 2007-08 in Sunrise, Fla.

“Last season was going to be a great opportunity for me,” Welch said. “Unfortunately, I had to have shoulder surgery.”

Welch played four games and when he came to camp the Panthers had added Nick Boynton, Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe and re-signed veteran Jassen Cullimore.

Now, Welch is in the mix for the Lightning in a logjam to battle for jobs next season on defense.
Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said after Welch’s first game that he liked how he took the body. Welch has nine hits and seven blocks in four games.

Eminger came to Tampa Bay, in the trade that sent Matt Carle to Philadelphia, with a similar resume as Welch. He was trying to grab hold of a steady top-six spot on defense in the NHL and maybe move up to a top-four role.

“Same situation, a new lease on life,” Tocchet said. “[Eminger] took the opportunity and established himself as a good defenseman.”

Welch is intent on following that lead.

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