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Noah Welch on Olympics, educating hitters, pledging his brain to science

The U.S. men’s Olympic hockey teams plays its first game in nine days, but for Noah Welch there’s some business to care of before jetting off to PyeongChang.

On Tuesday, Welch and his Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League will take on Finland’s JYP Jyväskylä in the final of the Champions Hockey League. The following day he’ll get on a plane heading to South Korea.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest,” Welch told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “I think [it will] when the plane lands, when I get to South Korea. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

Welch is in his seventh season playing in Sweden after a career in North America that saw him suit up 209 times in the AHL and play 75 NHL games with four teams. After establishing himself as a regular defenseman overseas, does he see the Olympics as a stepping stone for a return home?

“For me, no. I don’t think. I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship. I’m going to do everything I can to leave it all out there and almost treat this like it’s the last year.”

Welch is one of a number of players on the men’s Olympic roster that has NHL experience. It’s a lineup that has elicited a large amount of “Oh, I remember that guy” responses. But while you might recall the Brighton, Mass. native’s time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning or Atlanta Thrashers, a decade ago he made news for a unique decision that will help others after his death.

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It was in 2008 that Welch met fellow Harvard alum Chris Nowinski. Nowinski told him about what is now known as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which he co-founded, and how he was committed to raising awareness and studying the long-term effects of concussions. When the idea of brain donation came up, it was an easy decision for Welch, who was already an organ donor. “I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said ‘yeah, sure,’” he said.

Welch became one of 12 athletes, and the first hockey player, to agree to donate their brains after their deaths.

It’s been 10 years since that decision and there are now 190 pledges from current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, among other athletes, with Ben Lovejoy of the New Jersey Devils the only active NHLer involved. There have been numerous finds since as researchers continue to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Welch was way ahead of the game and has seen the impact that the spotlight on concussions in all sports has made.

“Overall, it keeps players safe, especially when it comes to their brain,” he said. “That’s extremely important. On the one hand, hockey players — this is what we sign up for. It’s a physical game, we know we’re going to get injured — part of the job, right? You’ll take an elbow, a shoulder, a knee, all that stuff, but when it comes to your brain, that’s where it gets scary. I think it’s great that there’s more awareness, especially on little things like keeping a guy out for an extra five days, how that can make such a big difference in their recovery period of a first trauma to the brain. Maybe that’s something we didn’t know years ago, where a guy rushes back to make one game that might not be that important gets hit again and now he’s out for a much longer time.

“It’s helping, and that’s great but there’s another side to it, too. Athletes are actually, in some situations, returning to their sport quicker and more prepared than they were before. Maybe they come back a little too early, they’re still foggy and then they’re more vulnerable and then if you get the total time of how long an athlete is out, maybe it could have been a lot less if they just followed the protocol.

“I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, maybe, we get a little carried away and everything might be a concussion nowadays. But I guess if you’re going to err, you err on the side of safety when it comes to the brain.”

Welch wouldn’t disclose exactly how many concussions he’s suffered during his career, simply saying “a few.” It’s been so long since he pledged his brain that he was pretty sure that none of his current teammates at Vaxjo are aware of his plans.

In the decade since, Welch has seen progress by sports leagues to minimize head trauma and protect players from returning too early, but there’s still plenty of educating to do.

“I know in the SHL, I think they’ve gone a little too far one way where they’ve taken responsibility out of the puck carrier,” he said. “Now they’ve talked about that the last couple of years and now they’re drawing back a bit. For example, if a guy’s skating up the ice with his head down and it’s a north-south hit, [it’s] hard to kind of aim your shoulder where you can hit a guy. You can just see his body move, it’s one object, just try and hit the middle. Sometimes you might get him in the head, sometimes you might get him in the chest, sometimes you might hit him in the left shoulder, and that’s hard. A lot of those what would be clean hits where your head is down were becoming suspensions just because it was a hit to the head. So the only alternative is to maybe let up, which I don’t know how I feel about that. But that’s something that the league’s are really going through right now. I know in the SHL they’ve drawn back and they’re telling players, puck carriers in particular, you have a responsibility, too, to know what’s going on around you and to pick your head up.

“It’s the east-west hits that are bad, and there’s no room for that in the game. Guy is maybe following his pass and then a guy completely comes blindside. On that play, a player can aim their shoulder. There they can locate where they want to hit the guy. They can get low and hit them in the ribs or his arm, and you can come up high and get him right in the jaw. But when it’s that north-south hit, it’s really hard to identify a particular spot on the opposing player’s body. The game’s so fast. And if he has his head down and you hit his head, it’s like, that’s a good hockey hit. You’re not trying to injure a guy but it’s a good hit and it does send a message. We found in our league in Sweden that a lot of the suspensions this year have actually been [the player getting hit has] has been a lot of young players, like junior guys. So you wonder if because the rules have gone so far one way that they’re not learning now to be more aware. There are some plays where you talk to older, veteran forwards on our team and they’re like I can’t even believe that guy would think about doing that. Everyone knew back in the day when Scott Stevens was on the ice you didn’t go up the middle. Some guys did, and we’ve all watched the YouTube clips.”

Inspired by the NHL, the SHL has been releasing videos explaining suspensions and certain non-suspensions in hopes of educating players the proper way to go about delivering hits.

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This won’t be the first time Welch has represented the U.S. in international competition. Aside from playing several youth tournaments, he was a part of November’s Deutschland Cup, the only games that the American team played before the final roster was announced on Jan. 1. Like his teammates, up until last April, he was fully expecting NHL players to be participating int the Olympic tournament, even after the NHL announced its decision.

“This wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream,” Welch said. “Last time I thought about this was I was probably 10 playing street hockey. A door opened up in the spring. Even after they decided [not to go,] it was always a chance that the NHL players were going to figure out a way. It wasn’t on the radar until just a few months ago.”

It’s turning out to be quite a start to 2018 for Welch between the CHL Final, the Olympics and his Vaxjo Lakers cruising toward a SHL title. Eight years ago he was trying to carve out a regular spot on an NHL roster, now he’s been a mainstay on the blue line for three different organizations in the SHL. He’s not looking for a North America comeback because he’s carved out his place in Sweden.

“[My family and I] always look at it as ‘just temporary,’ like it’s not home for us, but it’s a great place to work and to play,” he said.

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wickenheiser tops 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class

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The 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees were named on Tuesday. The class includes four players, in alphabetical order: Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov. Two builders were also inducted: Jim Rutherford and Jerry York. The induction ceremony will take place on November 18 in Toronto.

Let’s take a look at each member of this year’s class, starting with Wickenheiser.

Players

Wickenheiser: Sean Leahy pointed to Wickenheiser as the “lock” to make this HHOF class on Monday, and with good reason.

Wickenheiser becomes the seventh woman named to the Hockey Hall of Fame after winning four Olympic gold medals representing Canada, not to mention seven gold medals at the IIHF world championship. Wickenheiser was a two-time Olympic tournament MVP, and is Canada’s women’s leader in goals (168), assists (211) and points (379) after playing 276 games internationally.

Wickenheiser is currently in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, another testament to the immense respect she earned as a legend of the sport.

Zubov: The Russian defenseman won one Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, and one with the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau was one of Zubov’s teammates).

People, particularly Stars fans, have been debating Zubov’s HHOF merits for some time. As one example, Defending Big D pondered the argument as far back as 2013, with Erin Boylen comparing Zubov to the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Brian Leetch, Rob Blake, and other top contemporaries:

Over their respective careers, Zubov had better offensive numbers than Niedermayer and Blake, though not as good as Leetch. Both Zubov and Niedermayer, though not Blake, could have legitimately put up many more points if they didn’t play in defensively-focused systems for long stretches of their careers. He has essentially equal plus-minus statistics to Niedermayer, much better than Blake and Leetch. He was used in all situations and throughout his career was used as a top-pairing, shut-down defenseman.

The debates have been rampant enough among Stars fans that the Zubov HHOF debate has become a regular joke on the podcast “Puck Soup.” After all, for every Zubov proponent, there will be someone else who points out that he never won a Norris Trophy.

Maybe that debate will continue, but there’s some closure, as Zubov gets the nod.

Zubov finished his NHL career with 771 points in 1,068 regular season contests, spending 12 seasons with the Stars, three with the Rangers, and one with the Penguins. Zubov also appeared in 164 playoff games, and Hockey Reference lists some beefy ice time numbers during his Stars days, as he apparently logged 28:58 TOI per game over 114 playoff games with the Stars specifically.

Speaking of players who ended their Hall of Fame careers with the Stars …

Carbonneau: It’s difficult to shake the parallels between Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, but the good news is that such a comparison is a huge compliment to any two-way player.

Much like Gainey, Carbonneau was a tremendous defensive forward, winning three Selke Trophies during his career. Also like Gainey, Carbonneau made a huge impact on the Montreal Canadiens (where he won two Stanley Cups, and all three Selkes) before also making a considerable impression on the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau won his third and final Stanley Cup as a player).

Carbonneau played 13 seasons with the Canadiens, five with the Stars, and one with the St. Louis Blues. Overall, he generated 663 points and 820 penalty minutes in 1,318 career regular-season games over 19 seasons. Carbonneau was captain of the Canadiens from 1989-90 through 1993-94, and also served as head coach for three seasons.

Nedomansky: As Shen Peng documented for The Hockey News, Nedomansky deserves a mention alongside Alex Mogilny and the Stastny brothers as one of the players who bravely defected to North America to play hockey at the highest levels.

Nedomansky’s path was especially circuitous, as he began his North American playing days in the WHA in 1974-75. “Big Ned” started his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1977-78, when he was already well into his thirties. He put up some nice numbers in both leagues, and you have to wonder if he’d be a more well-known player if he came overseas during the highest peaks of his prime, in much the same way one might wonder about Igor Larionov and other top Russian players who entered the NHL during the twilight of their careers.

His impact deserves to be documented, so Nedomansky making the Hall of Fame is a great way for more fans to learn about the mark he made on the sport. Peng’s piece is a great place for you to start.

Builders

Rutherford: Jim Rutherford is still a builder as the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet clearly, he’s already in the HHOF, even if he stopped today.

Rutherford played in 457 games during his lengthy NHL career as a goalie (his hockey db photo is worth the trip to the page alone), yet he’s here because of his front office work, helping both the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes win Stanley Cups as a GM.

York: Jerry York is a legendary NCAA coach, having won four NCAA titles with Boston College, and one with Bowling Green. In 2016, he became the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games, which is pretty mind-blowing considering the shorter seasons in college hockey.

Blues fans can relax: Berube signs three-year contract

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As silly as it seemed to worry about Craig Berube not being the St. Louis Blues’ head coach after the team won its first ever Stanley Cup, there were those who were sweating the lack of an announcement nonetheless.

After all, we’ve seen some instances in which a coach wins it all, only to change locales. In fact, it just happened with the coach before Berube, as the Washington Capitals didn’t bring back Barry Trotz after winning the 2018 Stanley Cup, only for Trotz to win the Jack Adams with the resurgent New York Islanders. (Also: Mike Keenan.)

With Trotz, there was a succession plan already in place in Washington, so they move on with Todd Reirden. The Blues clearly weren’t penciling in Berube as a sure-thing, either, what with Berube being a mid-season replacement for Mike Yeo, and Berube carrying the “interim” title for a curious amount of time.

Well, any mild concerns were put to rest, anyway, on Tuesday. The Blues announced that Berube has been signed to a three-year contract.

[Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle]

It’s slightly disappointing that the money details haven’t leaked (yet?), as it would be intriguing to find out what Berube is getting paid. As much as winning it all drives up your bargaining power, there’s also not the greatest market for coaching jobs by late June, and Berube is likely relieved to not only coach a clearly talented team, but also to find a stable position.

(Stable by the almost inherently unstable standards of coaching jobs in the NHL, at least.)

The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford tracked down some quotes on the re-upping, including from Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

It’s been quite the whirlwind year for Berube. He took over for Yeo, saw the ascent of Jordan Binnington, earned a Jack Adams nomination, and then made some deft moves in helping the Blues win the Stanley Cup. Berube’s three-year extension is well-earned, and while he likely isn’t losing any sleep over it, you could very well argue that his Jack Adams case was even better than that of Trotz.

With this question answered, we can move on to the next one: can Berube and the Blues back this all with a strong encore?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade: Avalanche clear space for free agency; Coyotes get Soderberg

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Are the Colorado Avalanche loading up for a big free agent push this summer, or are they merely worried about how much it will cost to re-sign RFA star Mikko Rantanen? Or is it a little of both?

Such thoughts come to mind with Tuesday’s trade, as the Avalanche send center Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s largely a cash-clearing deal from Colorado’s perspective, considering the current details reported by The Athletic’s Craig Morgan, TSN’s Darren Dreger, and others:

Coyotes receive: Soderberg, a 33-year-old forward whose $4.75 million cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Avalanche receive: Kevin Connauton, 29-year-old defenseman, whose $1.375M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Also, the Avalanche receive a 2020 third-round pick.

One team clears cap room, the other profits

If there’s a theme of recent moves, it’s that one team is hoping to land a big fish in free agency, while another is happy to take on another contract to get better in a more modest (and maybe safer) way.

The Nashville Predators received a paltry return for P.K. Subban in that stunning trade, and on face value, the Avalanche didn’t receive much for Soderberg, either.

But, of course, context matters: both the Predators and Avalanche made their moves to save cap space.

Puck Pedia places Colorado’s cap space at just a little bit less than $38M, with 14 roster spots covered, and Rantanen headlining an RFA list that also includes Alex Kerfoot. The Avalanche boast some absolute bargain deals – most obviously in Nathan MacKinnon, yet also getting nice value in Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie – and Soderberg’s expiring contract was another reminder that the future was bright. Apparently the Avalanche believe that the future is now … although they’d probably argue that they’re enjoying both, as their 2019 NHL Draft weekend was acclaimed after they nabbed Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook.

Don’t sleep on the Coyotes’ takeaway, though.

Soderberg a hidden gem?

Soderberg might not be the sexiest talent in every way, yet he might have been the best example of Colorado’s sneaky value outside of their top guys. The bad news is that MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen generated the vast majority of the Avs’ offense during the past few seasons. The better news is that players like Soderberg and Kerfoot were strong two-way players who could hold down the fort when those guys weren’t on the ice.

Soderberg scored 23 goals for Colorado last season, and his 49 points ranked fifth-most on the team. There are a number of ways where he seems sneaky-good, including where he falls on this Goals Above Replacement chart among Avalanche forwards (visualization by Sean Tierney; data via Evolving Hockey).

Impressive, right? Surprising, even, considering that Soderberg compares so well to Rantanen, at least by those metrics.

The Coyotes have been building their roster by taking on other teams’ cap concerns, as much as by drafting, particularly since some of their picks haven’t worked out quite as planned (Clayton Keller rules; if Dylan Strome is going to rule, it will be for Chicago).

In Soderberg, the Coyotes might only be leaning into what almost got them into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: grinding opponents into a paste. On paper, the Coyotes figure to play a not-so-pretty style, but it’s increasingly trending toward being effective. At least, Soderberg inches them closer to having waves of quality players, maybe enough to wash over opponents and back into the postseason. Maybe their style will end up being desert-dry, but this gives them another quality two-way player, and at a reasonable price.

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In a vacuum, this trade is a nice win for the Coyotes. However, if the Avalanche win by landing Artemi Panarin, then chances are, they’ll be OK taking the L in this one.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.