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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.

Preds hire Scuderi, Bordeleau, Rook as development coaches

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have hired Rob Scuderi, Sebastien Bordeleau and Dave Rook as development coaches to help polish their prospects for the NHL.

General manager David Poile announced the hirings Tuesday. Scuderi will develop defensemen, with Bordeleau working with forwards and Rook with goaltenders. They will work with Scott Nichol, the Predators’ director of player development and general manager of their AHL franchise Milwaukee.

The 40-year-old Scuderi retired from the NHL in 2016 after 12 years and 783 career games with the Penguins, the Kings and Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups.

Bordeleau played three seasons with Predators from their start as an expansion franchise. He was skills coach for the Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons and this past season for the Canadiennes of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Rook has been a goaltending consultant for Nashville the past five seasons, helping Predators goalies Juuse Saros and Troy Groseneck. He was goaltending coach for Columbus between 2009 and 2011.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Trade: Flyers add Braun to blue line as Sharks shed salary

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One day after the San Jose Sharks handed Erik Karlsson $92 million over the next eight years, they shipped defenseman Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick (No. 41 overall) and a third-round selection in 2020.

“Justin has been an important part of our organization since we drafted him in 2007 and over that time, we have seen him develop not only as a player on the ice but as a man,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in a statement. “He has played a large role in our team’s success since joining the Sharks roster, including appearing in three Conference Finals and competing for the Stanley Cup in 2016. I want to thank Justin and his wife, Jessie, for their commitment to the Sharks organization and wish them all the best in their future.”

In the wake of the Karlsson extension Wilson needed to shed some salary off the Sharks’ cap. This trade does that, freeing up $3.8M from their books for the 2019-20 NHL season. Braun has one year left on his deal and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Wilson and the Sharks now have a little over $16M in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to try and re-sign some of the team’s restricted free agents like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, and figure out what to do with UFAs Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist.

“Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said on Monday. “I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

The Braun acquisition continues an aggressive off-season by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher. In the span of a week he’s acquired the negotiating rights to pending UFA Kevin Hayes, swapped defensemen with the Washington Capitals by shipping Radko Gudas in exchange for Matt Niskanen, bought out Andrew MacDonald‘s contract, and now added Braun.

This now gives the Flyers a blue line with a left side featuring Ivan Provorov (RFA), Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, and Travis Sanheim (RFA). Who will be on the move out of that group? Judging by how some NHL GMs are talking this week, it could be a very busy summer of player movement.

“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” Wilson said. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

MORE:
Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension
Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents
Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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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.

Lightning re-sign Coburn to $3.4M, 2-year deal

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal.

Coburn will count $1.7 million against the salary cap in each of the next two seasons. General manager Julien BriseBois announced the contract Tuesday.

The 34-year-old had four goals and 19 assists in 74 games last season when he averaged 17:08 of ice time. Coburn took a $2 million annual pay cut from his last contract, which should help Tampa Bay remain among the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

Coburn has 228 points in 924 games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning. Tampa Bay acquired him in 2015.

This deal comes less than a day after two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signed with San Jose. The Lightning were considered among the favorites to sign Karlsson if he became a free agent.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sharks re-signing Karlsson sets table for busy NHL offseason

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Erik Karlsson had no wanderlust to test the free agent market before re-signing in San Jose.

”I never thought outside that box,” Karlsson said. ”I’m happy that it didn’t get to that.”

A handful of other teams aren’t so happy because the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman would have been the best unrestricted free agent available. Karlsson signing a $92 million, eight-year contract with the Sharks is the first big domino to fall since St. Louis won the Stanley Cup because of all the ramifications it could have on the NHL offseason.

With Karlsson off the board, any team looking for a No. 1 defenseman has to either hope veteran Alexander Edler doesn’t re-sign with the Canucks and win that bidding war or go the trade route. Salary-cap concerns for San Jose, Washington and a handful of other Cup contenders could open the door to some significant player movement even before free agency starts July 1.

”I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said Monday. ”There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

Already the Capitals have cleared cap space by trading defenseman Matt Niskanen to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas and used some of it to re-sign winger Carl Hagelin , the Islanders re-signed forward Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle , the Flyers acquired the rights to pending free agent Kevin Hayes from the Jets and the Rangers traded for Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba .

The trade talk is just heating up ahead of the draft Friday and Saturday in Vancouver. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang and Nashville’s P.K. Subban are among the high-profile players who could be on the move.

”There’s a lot of talk,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”There’s a lot of different names out there. There’s a lot of different ways to improve your team.”

Many of those moves will set the table for free agency, where Columbus winger Artemi Panarin, center Matt Duchene and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are the top three players available.

Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, Dallas winger Mats Zuccarello, Islanders winger Anders Lee, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, Bruins winger Marcus Johansson and Hurricanes winger Micheal Ferland are among the other possibilities. The salary cap is expected to increase by $3.5 million to roughly $83 million, and money will be spent.

”It’s a pretty good class this year,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. ”(We) already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’ll want to talk to about joining our club. We see positions of need, of what we’re looking to do. There’s a few guys we’re going to want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that, but if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to, we’re not just going to go spend on anybody.”

Sakic’s Avalanche have the most projected cap space in the league with $36 million, according to PuckPedia . The Flyers and rival New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Islanders will also have cap space to burn and a need for an elite defenseman or two.

”They’re not easy to find,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”Certainly, if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we’d have the ability to acquire, we’ll certainly look at it.”

Karlsson was linked to the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and it took less than a day for the first direct response to him re-signing with the Sharks. The Lightning on Tuesday re-signed veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal – cap space they likely would have needed for Karlsson if he was available.

BUT FIRST, THE DRAFT: New Jersey is widely expected to select American center Jack Hughes first overall, leaving Finnish winger Kaappo Kakko for the Rangers.

”Obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft,” Gorton said. ”I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

Chicago picks third and will get a nice boost to aid its turnaround after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

BITE OUT OF SHARKS: Committing $11.5 million a year to Karlsson cuts significantly into San Jose’s offseason maneuvering with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi set to be unrestricted free agents and emerging star Timo Meier needing a new contract as a restricted free agent.

”Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said, not ruling out bringing back Pavelski and others. ”I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

RUSSIAN PACKAGE DEAL: Panarin and Bobrovsky played together with the Blue Jackets for two seasons and are hitting free agency at the same time. When Panarin switched agents to be represented by Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanus, it raised eyebrows that the Russian countrymen might want to go to the same team.

With some creative roster work, the Florida Panthers could be the ideal landing spot for Panarin and Bobrovsky and go from close to the playoffs to real contenders.

CAPITALS CONCERNS: Even though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are no longer reigning Cup champions, Hagelin insisted he wouldn’t have signed an $11 million, four-year contract with them if he didn’t think they could win it again over that time. To do so, GM Brian MacLellan will have to navigate a difficult cap situation around pending free agent winger Brett Connolly and restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky and knowing deals with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby expire next summer.

”I hope (Connolly and Burakovsky are) still here,” Hagelein said. ”But at the end of the day, Conno, he’s a UFA so it’s up to him what he wants. You understand if a guy tests the market to see what’s out there. But I hope both of those guys come back.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports