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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.

Beyond Benn and Seguin: Breaking down Stars’ hot streak

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If it weren’t for the virtually unbeatable New York Islanders, the Dallas Stars would probably be considered the hottest team in the NHL.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.

The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:

Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.

Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.

Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.

(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)

As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out

Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.

Through the Stars’ ugly first nine games of 2019-20, they allowed 29 goals and only scored 17. Remarkably, the Stars have allowed fewer goals (26) in the 14 games since, while generating 49. I’m no mathematician nor am I a goalie coach, but if you’re allowing less than two goals per game in the modern NHL, you’re probably going to win a lot.

Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.

Scoring variety

When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.

After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.

(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)

Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)

With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Promising metrics

Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).

But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.

Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart for the Stars really drives the point home in an aesthetically pleasing and almost blunt way:

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?

The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.

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.

Off Script: Eddie Olczyk opens up about his battle with colon cancer

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NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special.

Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league.

Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, he has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

MORE: Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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What’s wrong with the Predators?

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When the Nashville Predators got off to an 8-3-1 start no one was really surprised. Most people expected them to be a good team this year, so why would those positive results be shocking? Well, on the flip side, this six-game losing streak they’re currently riding is pretty shocking. But why are they struggling so badly?

This slump started with an ugly 9-3 loss in Denver on Nov. 7. Since then, the Predators haven’t won a game and they’ve collected just one of a possible 12 points in the standings. As you’d imagine, they’ve been tumbling down the Western Conference standings. Only the Minnesota Wild (20 points) and the Los Angeles Kings (19 points) have fewer points than Nashville’s 21 (the Preds have a game in hand on both those teams though).

You don’t have to look far to see why they’re slumping so badly. They’ve given up at least five goals in four of the six losses. When they’ve held the opponent to two goals or fewer, they’ve only managed to score once. Yeah, that’s an issue.

The really strange thing about the boatload of goals that this team is giving up, is that they actually have lowest XGA in the league at 31.97, according to Natural Stat Trick. So the fact that they’re giving up so many goals while seemingly limiting their opponents’ quality scoring chances has to be concerning.

Pekka Rinne‘s been pulled in each of his last two starts and his individual stats aren’t flattering either. He owns a respectable 8-4-2 record, but his goals-against-average of 3.06 and his save percentage of .889 aren’t great by any means. Is the 37-year-old just showing his age or is this slide only temporary? Will they have to turn to Juuse Saros more often? These are all valid questions that need to be answered soon.

The goalies need to come up with some saves to bail out their team, but that doesn’t excuse the performance from everyone else on the team.

But blaming the goalie for Thursday night’s loss to the Canucks isn’t fair. The Predators surrendered five power play goals to Vancouver during the 6-3 defeat.

“Things aren’t bouncing our way right now, but at the same time, we’re not making it easy on ourselves either,” Matt Duchene said after the game, per NHL.com. “Whenever things are tough sledding like right now, you’ve got to do whatever you can to give yourself a chance. You take that many penalties, I don’t know how many we took, six or seven, I don’t know what it was. They got three or four great bounces on the power play and just put pucks to the net.”

Even though the Preds are 10th in the NHL in goals scored, they’ve seen a lot of their high-end offensive players go cold in the last few games. Here’s the statistical rundown for their top forwards:

— Matt Duchene: Six points in his last seven games, but he’s found the back of the net just once in his last five outings.
Filip Forsberg: No points in his last three games.
Ryan Johansen: One goal in his last 17 games.
Viktor Arvidsson: No goals in seven games and he’s scored just once in his last 12 contests.
Mikael Granlund: One goal in his last 16 games.

Those are some heavy offensive hitters that have gone cold in the goal department. You won’t win regularly if that many top players go quiet.

Overall, it’s quite clear that the Preds need some serious work in a lot of different areas. There’s no denying that the team is talented, but what happens if this drought lasts a little longer? Does head coach Peter Laviollette get the Mike Babcock treatment? For now, it looks like management will give everyone the benefit of the doubt before they make a major trade or a firing.

At least the group still seems to believe they can get this straightened out.

“We’ve got to stick together. It’s a tough time,” forward Rocco Grimaldi said after Tuesday’s loss to Winnipeg. “It’s a rough patch. But honestly everyone goes through it. You look at St. Louis last year and remember where they were, so it’s just something everyone goes through. And if you’re a great team, how do you respond to this? How do you guys grow closer together? How do you guys grow stronger together through this? So this is something we’ve just got to make it band us together and not break us apart.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Keefe: Toronto has enough talent for quick progress

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spent a decent chunk of a 30-minute morning skate on Thursday teaching instead of running drills.

There’s a lot for his new team to learn and not much time to do it.

The 39-year-old Keefe is now in charge of the Maple Leafs after veteran coach Mike Babcock was fired Wednesday with the team mired in a six-game losing streak.

Keefe was officially introduced Thursday morning as the 31st head coach in Maple Leafs history. He’s got a long history with general manager Kyle Dubas, who hopes Keefe is the right choice to help Toronto bounce back from a disappointing 9-10-4 start.

Keefe believes it can be done.

”We’ve got a lot of talent and the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways,” he said. ”Focusing on that, we believe, will produce positive results. Because the players are good enough for that to happen.”

Keefe inherits a roster that includes talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Tavares said there were ”many mixed emotions” because Babcock was so dedicated and committed to the team. He said the team feels a burden because it hasn’t played up to expectations but is ”turning the page” and moving forward.

”Sheldon’s got a great mind for the game,” Tavares said. ”We’re excited about the energy and the things he’s bringing and trying to improve from where we’re at.”

Keefe will make his coaching debut during Toronto’s game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

Dubas said the franchise must show patience as Keefe, a first-time NHL coach, embarks on the difficult task of taking over a team midseason and trying to quickly turn things around.

He’s confident the players understand there will be ups and down.

He’s also aware that outside perception might be a little less forgiving.

”It’s all part of what makes working and playing in Toronto great,” Dubas said. ”You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without people caring deeply about the team. I read the greatest quote this morning on the way here: ‘You can look at it as a burden or look at it as a trampoline.”’

Toronto is a team that needs quite a bounce.

The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto and made the playoffs the past three years, though the Maple Leafs lost in the first round each time. When the team started slowly this season, Dubas and team President Brendan Shanahan knew it was time for a change.

Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock, whom he hired in 2015.

He acknowledged it was a hard day. Some more hard days may follow as Keefe tries to quickly implement his system, though the franchise is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

Keefe was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. He was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped the franchise win its first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Several of the Leafs’ current players were coached by Keefe when he was with the Marlies, which is the franchise’s top minor-league affiliate.