Opportunity Knocks for Welsh
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Knocking rather loudly, at that.
With the departure of center Brandon Sutter in the trade that saw Jordan Staal land in Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes have a vacancy to fill: they need a capable two-way center with defensive prowess and an offensive upside, as well.
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Welsh has the build for that role.
“[He has] a great opportunity,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “If I was him right now, I’d look at the situation and see the opportunity is here.”
But does he have the skill set to be effective on a regular basis? That’s what the Canes, who have a one-game snapshot of the sought-after college free agent, will be seeking to discover this week and in training camp.
“It’s definitely an important week,” said Welsh, one of 13 prospects invited to the Canes’ annual conditioning camp. “I just want to keep making a good impression.”
So far, so good.
Both Muller and President and General Manager Jim Rutherford have tossed Welsh’s name into the mix of players who could fill the roster hole. It’s something Welsh said he didn’t even think about when the trade was made, but now that he’s in town for conditioning camp, reality sank in.
“How that affects the depth chart, that’s not really my concern,” he said. “But there’s an opportunity there, so I want to earn it.”
“His skill level is there,” Muller said. “He’s still got to earn that spot, but certainly there’s an opening there for him.”
It hasn’t been the case in recent years for a center position – let alone two – to be up for grabs in training camp. That will likely be the case in September, especially if the Staal brothers play on the same line.
“It’s going to be an experimental phase in camp, but he’s certainly going to get an opportunity to play,” Muller said. “It will be fun to see guys battling for different positions, and that’s what you want to see at camp.”
“I’m thankful for the opportunity, but I have to keep up my end of the bargain over the summer,” Welsh said. “They’ve got a lot of good guys in the American League in Charlotte, too, who have been up and down and obviously will be battling for those spots.”
Just over two months ago, Welsh’s Union College Bulldogs were ousted by Ferris State in the Frozen Four. Forty-eight hours later, the ink still fresh on his contract, Welsh dressed in his first National Hockey League game, the Canes’ 2011-12 season finale against Florida.
The statistics weren’t even that important, at least for Welsh; he treasured the experience.
“It was a bit of a confidence boost knowing I could do it,” Welsh said. “Rather than worrying about it all summer and not knowing what you’re getting into, it’s nice to have a bit of an understanding when I’m training what I need to improve on and how the game changes up here. That was the best case scenario: to get that taste and get a feel for things.”
Since then, the 24-year-old, Bayfield, Ontario native has been working out on and off the ice in Calgary with a handful of his former Union teammates. Muller took notice.
“He already looks a little bit stronger than the last game we saw him, so he must be doing some off-ice workouts,” he said.
Size is what Muller and the Canes are actively seeking. Getting bigger, Muller stressed, is a necessity in today’s game, especially against a number of the Eastern Conference opponents the Canes will see for a majority of the season. Acquiring Staal has partly addressed the lack of size, adding a 6-foot-4, 220-pound body to the forward corps. Inserting Welsh into the lineup would further bolster the strength down the middle.
“I think I can play a couple different roles,” Welsh said. “I can check, take the body, muck and grind and be solid defensively. But I have offensive instincts and can contribute offensively, too.
“Whatever role needs to be filled, I just try to do it.”
This much is clear: he’ll have an opportunity.
“It’s up to him,” Muller said. “He’s got to be excited.”