RALEIGH — Union College hockey coach Rick Bennett said his nickname for center Jeremy Welsh was “Big Boy,” and with good reason.
Welsh has good size at 6-3 and 210 pounds, and looks bigger on the ice. And when Union needed him, Bennett said, he played big.
“He always took charge when we needed him to take charge, especially in the playoffs,” Bennett said.
The Carolina Hurricanes obviously saw the same take-charge attributes in Welsh, 24, who was an All-America selection for the Dutchmen. Just a few hours after Union, located in Schenectady, N.Y., were beaten in the NCAA Frozen Four, the Canes were waiting at the team hotel in Tampa, Fla., to sign him to a free-agent contract.
Two days later, Welsh made his NHL debut in Sunrise, Fla. He played 15 minutes in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers in their final regular-season game.
“That was a bit of a confidence boost, that I could do it and I could play,” Welsh said. “That was the best-case scenario, to get that taste.”
Welsh, wearing No. 23, centered Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu and impressed the Canes that night – from coach Kirk Muller to general manger Jim Rutherford. The Bayfield, Ont., native has put himself in position to contend for a roster spot next season and possibly be the one to replace Brandon Sutter as the Canes’ third-line center.
“The opportunity is knocking,” Bennett said. “It’s up to Jeremy to knock back. He’s a smart guy. He sees it. And with his work ethic he’ll be fine.”
An opening materialized last week at the NHL Entry Draft when the Hurricanes traded Sutter to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of the deal to acquire Jordan Staal. A hint as to the Canes’ confidence in Welsh could be revealed in how aggressively they seek out a center in free agency or through offseason trades.
“I had heard a lot of rumors about Jordan coming to Carolina, but how that affects the depth chart is not my concern,” Welsh said. “Obviously I’m not stupid. ... There’s an opportunity there and I want to earn it.
“I think I can play the game a number of different ways. I can take the body and kind of muck and grind and be solid defensively. But I think with my shot and offensive instincts I can contribute offensively, too. Kind of high energy, use my size, get on pucks and have enough offensive awareness to make some plays, too.”
Rutherford noted Muller has a number of options at center, beginning with Jordan Staal and brother Eric Staal.
“Jeff Skinner can play center,” he said. “Ruutu can play center. We’ve got Jussi Jokinen who can play center. Tim Brent had a really good year for us.
“Welsh, we really like. He’s an up-and-coming player with size who is physical on the ice.”
Welsh, who scored a school-record 27 goals in 40 games at Union last season, has been at the Canes’ rookie conditioning camp this week. He has been sweating out conditioning drills under head trainer Pete Friesen and gutting through the on-ice work at Raleigh Center Ice.
“He’s a big strong kid who skates well,” said Cory Stillman, the Canes’ new director of forwards development. “I think as an organization you’re always looking for big centermen. You have one with Eric and added another with Jordan and now you have a third one who has an opportunity to make the team.”
Welsh hopes to complete his degree work in economics this summer, saying he has three papers to write. He’ll also spend part of the summer in Calgary, Alberta, working on his strength and conditioning.
Welsh already has caused some head-turning among NHL junkies. To play the one game for the Canes, he signed a one-year contract that included a $92,500 signing bonus. The oddity of such a contract was it caused a $17.9 million cap hit for the Canes, as recorded by capgeek.com.
Welsh, with a laugh, noted he was sitting in a class at Union when told the news.
“One of my buddies brought up capgeek and showed it to me,” Welsh said. “We started laughing. Obviously just a statistical anomaly.”
The class: Financial Analysis. Like Welsh’s nickname, it fit.