Noah Welch is seeking fulfillment. He admits it’s a journey he thought would have been completed by now.
When he arrived for his first training camp last year with the Panthers, the 6-4 defenseman and former Harvard University captain was prepared to make his mark in the NHL. One of the NCAA’s top defensemen during his four years at Harvard and then a defensive leader at Wilkes-Barre in the American Hockey League (AHL), Welch appeared ready for a breakout season.
“I thought it would be my big year,” Welch, 26, said. “I thought I would establish myself as a regular in this league, as a good defenseman in this league.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t the hand I was dealt.”
Playing in his fourth game of the season, Welch suffered a shoulder injury in Montreal that resulted in season-ending surgery. Instead of making his mark, Welch spent the season on the sidelines rehabilitating.
Despite the setback, Welch has returned for his second training camp in South Florida healthy, confident, and, once again, with the same hope as last year – establishing himself as an NHL defenseman.
“The most important thing was just trying to get back at the end of last season,” said Welch, who was healthy at the end of the year but kept on the sidelines as a precaution by GM Jacques Martin. “After I accomplished that, my second goal over the summer was to make sure I didn’t have any issues going into training camp with my shoulder.”
Welch accomplished his second goal by working out back home in Massachusetts. Between workouts in the gym and hosting ‘Noah Welch’s Hock, Rock & Bowl’ - a charity event that raised more than $20,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation - Welch worked out with prominent skating coach Paul Vincent, currently the skating coach for the Blackhawks and the former skating coach for the Devils, Lightning and Panthers.
“I worked with (Vincent) when I was growing up,” Welch said. “Once I was healthy, once I had a clean slate, I wanted to have a good summer working out. I know how to train and I know what my body needs, but it’s tough doing it on your own. Skating was something I definitely wanted to work on. It was a goal.
“We started three times a week then went to four. We worked out at the Bruin’s rink (Ristuccia Arena). I feel a lot more comfortable on the ice now than I did last year coming into camp. And it was important for me to be ready because I had been out of game situations and wanted to feel more comfortable coming in and not going through that transitional period coming into camp.”
Welch, drafted by the Penguins in the second round (54th overall) of the 2001 Entry Draft, was acquired Feb. 27 by the Panthers in exchange for Gary Roberts. After playing 22 games for the Penguins in 2006-07, he played only two games for the Panthers after being sidelined for a short time in Wilkes-Barrie with a concussion.
While no one doubts Welch’s potential as a top defenseman, he’s played only 28 NHL games the past two seasons. The question is where Welch fits and what his role will be on one of the league’s top blue lines.
“I’m excited to see Noah,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “He was a high end prospect when (the Panthers) acquired him two years ago. He’s had some tough times with injuries and we’re going to give him a lot of opportunity through exhibitions to show he hasn’t lost anything through that time period.”
While Welch admits last season was difficult, he’s come to camp with a clean slate. “I’m not looking back,” he said. “Last year was a bad deal but I can’t control those things. I have the same mentality as I did last year, and I’m trying not to think about anything other than that.
“I’m excited about getting out there and showing the coaches and my teammates what I can do to help this team along.