Noah Welch is projected to be a fixture on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue line for many years to come.
Right now, he’s getting his first taste of the NHL.
Welch was summoned from the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a late-season stint in Pittsburgh.
So far, he’s done very well.
“I was really focusing on Wilkes-Barre and we have a good playoff run coming up, so I was focused on that and really surprised to get the call,” he said. “My stint here is just to get my feet wet. It’s something that’s pretty much a measuring stick for next year. I’d like to finish up strong and hopefully next year make a run to make the team right away [out of training camp]. I think it will help with confidence coming into camp next year.”
Welch, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman, was enjoying a stellar rookie season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which remains atop the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference standings by a slim margin. The 23-year-old leads all Baby Penguins defensemen in scoring this season and ranks third among team rookies with 26 points (8+18) in 68 games. He ranks sixth on the team with 81 penalty minutes and is tied for fourth with a plus-12 rating.
“I think it’s been a really good year. We had a lot of team success and I think that really helps your confidence as a rookie. When you’re winning, you confidence goes up,” he said. “I think I have developed a lot. Coach [Michel] Therrien and Coach [Mike] Yeo helped me out a lot and our new coaches [in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] have done the same.”
He had an immediate impact in the NHL. He recorded an assist in his Penguins debut on Friday. Welch had another helper and scored his first NHL goal in Sunday’s 6-5 defeat to Montreal.
“I wanted to get a couple shots on net [Sunday] and I didn’t have the opportunity in the first or second period. In the third, I was trying to get it to the net. Josef Melichar made a great play to get it over to me and I just put it on the net.”
Welch, a four-year standout at Harvard, comes to a familiar environment in Pittsburgh. He was a standout during training camp this season. In addition, Therrien and Yeo coached Welch for the first part of the year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before they were promoted to Pittsburgh on Dec. 15. Also, many players on the Penguins’ roster spent some time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton earlier in the year.
“It makes it a lot easier. It was great coming here for training camp and getting to know all the trainers and Mr. [Craig] Patrick,” he said. “So, seeing a lot of familiar faces, the whole new kid shyness kind of goes away after the first five minutes.”
Welch has impressed Therrien and Yeo right away.
“I have a lot of confidence in that kid because I saw him growing early in the season. For his first game, he was solid,” Therrien said “He got some good hits. He was moving the puck well, jumping into the play and making right decisions. He was solid 1-on-1. He didn’t take himself out of position to throw hits. For his first game, we were really impressed.”
Welch believes he’s learned a lot in his first professional year.
“Just adjusting to the speed of the game – obviously, it’s a little different at this level than in college. Things happen a lot quicker,” he said. “For a defenseman, when you turn the puck over, it’s either a scoring chance or it’s in the net and that’s something you need to be careful about. A lot of the times, it’s not the sophisticated play that works; it might be just get it off the glass and out of the zone. I think those are the things I had to adjust to. I also have to get quicker and get my feet moving quicker and I think I’ve done that.”
Welch, who will be paired with Josef Melichar, just hopes to keep his game simple.
“I didn’t get a chance to play with him in the preseason, but he is a steady defenseman and a veteran, which will help me out a lot,” he said. “As far as the games are concerned, I already talked to the coaches and they told me not to change a thing and keep it simple. That’s really what I have to focus on – my own zone and making the first pass.”
With a lot of player movement between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh this season, Welch thought he might make his NHL debut earlier.
“You hear things and there was a part of the year where I was walking to the rink wondering if it could be the day [I got called up],” he said. “Then, you drive yourself crazy, so I pretty must just kind of stopped thinking about it and focused on my game down there and I think that helped a lot. So, it was a surprise. I didn’t expect it.”
Seeing so many of his teammates get called up to Pittsburgh didn’t frustrate Welch. Rather, it gave him confidence that he was on the right path.
“If anything, it helps out. You see guys like that come up, play well and have success up here and it gives you a little more confidence,” he said. “I didn’t really get frustrated. When you play with those guys and compete against them in practice and then you see them do well, it gives you a lot of confidence as a young guy.”