Devils fans were excited when the team announced that they signed Will Butcher back in August. In September, Butcher was put on top power play units - or at least power play units with NHL players - throughout preseason. It is now October and Butcher has been showing why he’s been a big deal. Just five games into the 2017-18 season, Butcher has put up eight assists. No rookie defenseman has done that - at least not under the current definition of rookie; 31-year old Sergei Makarov put up ten in his first five NHL games in 1989-90 per Hockey-Reference. Still, it is an impressive achivement. Butcher is not only the team’s point leader, but he leads the team with five power play points - all assists.
His run of helpers has been so noticeable that I think it deserves a closer look. Is there anything in common? Were they from legitimate plays that played a role in creating a goal? Was Butcher just given credit for a touch or an play out of his control that did lead to a goal? To find out, let’s look at all eight of his assist so far. All videos are from NHL.com:
Videos of Butcher’s Eight Assists in His First Five NHL Games
Assist #1 - 10/7 vs. Colorado, 1-0 - Primary assist on Adam Henrique’s power play goal.
Assist Description: Will Butcher took a wrist shot from the left point and Adam Henrique deflected it into the net. It was a legitimate assist and directly created the goal.
Further Comments: I broke down the whole play in this post as it was the first Devils goal of the season. Go check it out, it is a fun play that led to the deflection-goal.
Assist #2 - 10/7 vs. Colorado, 2-0 - Secondary assist on Jimmy Hayes’ power play goal.
Assist Description: Butcher collects a puck at the right point. After looking, he sends the puck across to Kyle Palmieri, who is at the center point, with a forehand pass. Palmieri fires a shot that misses the net, rebounds off the endboards, and Hayes chips the puck past the goalie. It was a legitimate assist as it contributed to the shot that led to the goal. The primary assist itself was not a direct pass or even a shot on net, though it did create the opportunity for Hayes.
Further Comments: The scoring play was not in the traditional 1-3-1 set up. As Butcher shifted to the right side to collect the puck, Palmieri dropped back and moved to the middle.
Assist #3 - 10/7 vs. Colorado, 3-1 - Secondary assist on Jesper Bratt’s power play goal.
Assist Description: From the right point and heading towards the middle, Butcher fakes a slapshot and passes it to Taylor Hall, who is at the top of the left circle. Hall sends a pass across (past #34 on Colorado) to Jesper Bratt, who fires in a one-timer for his first NHL goal. This is a legitimate assist and it is a pass that directly creates the play for the goal.
Further Comments: This assist came while the Devils were in the 1-3-1 set up. While not part of his first assist, this play also features a faked shot by Butcher.
Assist #4 - 10/11 at Toronto, 1-1 - Secondary assist on Miles Wood’s first goal.
Assist Description: Jimmy Hayes rounds the corner and sends a pass to Will Butcher, who is at the right point against the boards. Butcher collects the puck, turns, and then passes it across to an open Steve Santini. Santini collects the puck at the left point, takes a stride up, and fires a hard snap shot. The shot hits off Miles Wood to go into the net. This pass was a legitimate assist and it directly created the shot that led to the goal.
Further Comments: This assist was Butcher’s first even strength and 5-on-5 assist in his NHL career.
Assist #5 - 10/11 at Toronto, 2-1 - Secondary assist on Miles Wood’s second goal.
Assist Description: Butcher apparently wins the puck and makes a short pass up to Adam Henrique. With pressure applied by Nazem Kadri, Henrique lobs the puck into the neutral zone. Calle Rosen, while skating backwards, tries to glove the puck in the neutral zone. Instead, the puck lands behind him and an opportunistic Miles Wood swooped in, took the puck in alone, and beat the goalie clean. The short pass by Henrique was not a legitimate assist as it did not directly create the goal. The only reason why Henrique’s lob even was an assist was because Rosen did not handle the puck well. Rosen’s mistake created this goal.
Further Comments: That all said, this goal was pretty sweet by Wood. If anything, he deserves the full credit for this one. When mistakes are made, it is good to make the opponent suffer for them.
Assist #6 - 10/13 vs. Washington, 1-2 - Secondary assist on Taylor Hall’s power play goal.
Assist Description: Butcher collects the puck at the right point and skates with it along the blueline towards the left point. He is keeping the puck primarily on his backhand. Lars Eller keeps him at bay. Butcher does get ahead of Eller laterally to toss a backhand pass to Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri collects the puck outside of the left dot. He delays and then sends a pass across the slot to Taylor Hall. Hall takes a touch and fires it in for his first of the season. Butcher’s pass was a legitimate assist. It directly led to the play that led to the goal.
Further Comments: This is the first assist of Butcher’s where he was in motion prior to the assist. He used his legs to change the point of distribution and find an open player.
Assist #7 - 10/14 at New York (R), 2-1 - Secondary assist on Miles Wood’s goal.
Assist Description: Butcher jumps up from the right point to take a not-so-well-cleared puck from around the boards by Anthony DeAngelo. Butcher skates down towards the bottom of the right circle, outside of the dot. He fires a pass towards the middle and the puck ricochets off a skate (Miles Wood’s?) to go out into space. Ben Lovejoy collects the loose puck off the boards and fires a slapshot while gliding back. Wood tips in the slapshot for the goal. This is not a legitimate assist by Butcher as it did not intentionally directly create the goal. It was not even a direct pass, Lovejoy was able to get the puck due to a chance deflection off someone’s skate.
Further Comments: Never let it be said that Lovejoy did not contribute anything in 2017-18.
Assist #8 - 10/14 vs. New York (R), 3-1 - Primary assist on Drew Stafford’s power play goal.
Assist Description: During a 4-on-3 power play, Butcher carries the puck through the neutral zone and across the blueline to the center point. Spotting Drew Stafford freely entering the zone on the Rangers’ left flank, Butcher stops just over the blueline in the middle. He then sends a pass through Kevin Hayes and connects with Stafford on Marc Staal’s flank. Stafford cuts to the middle to around Staal and beats the goalie with a backhander. This is a legitimate assist by Butcher and it directly created the goal.
Further Comments: This play was glorious for a couple of reasons. One: Butcher threaded a needle to hit Stafford perfectly in stride off the zone entry. Two: Butcher took care of the zone entry and made sure to stop his stride after crossing the blueline. Three: This created a sweet goal against Our Hated Rivals. Do not be surprised to see Butcher
Out of eight assists, I counted six out of Butcher’s assists to be legitimate assists. That is, plays that directly contributed to the goal itself or the play that led to the goal. It is easy to look at a player having six secondary assists and concluding that they were all cheap or indicative of the player not really contributing. The video suggests otherwise. We can say that Butcher was fortunate to pick up two assists on scoring plays he did not directly influence. But that’s it.
Those six assists were also created from the points. Butcher has shown some willingness to jump on offense (e.g. Assist #7) but for the most part his job to stay by the blueline to collect pucks and distribute accordingly. This is why John Hynes and his staff put Butcher in the back of their 1-3-1 power play from preseason right away. Butcher is clearly able to recognize who is open and provide a different number of passes. He’s able to fake a slapshot and then make a pass, he’s able to make them from his forehand and his backhand, and he is mobile enough for the formation and to respond to pressure.
If there are any improvements I can suggest, then there are two that come to mind. First, his most recent assist shows Butcher carrying the puck in on a zone entry. I’d like to see the Devils utilize that more often. Zone entries have been an issue for the team in power play situations. In order for the team to get set up and utilize everyone’s talents, the zone entries have to be good and ideally with control. That assist was helped by it being a 4-on-3 situation (which may mean we could see Butcher in overtime). I still think it would help to have more of them.
Second, Butcher is able to utilize a fake shot for a pass. However, Butcher has all of four shots on net this season. Granted, one of his shots was tipped in (Assist #1). Still, Butcher would do well to take some initiative here and there and fire some more pucks. It would force defenders to keep respecting that fake he has done and he can do. It would also add an element to his offensive game that teams will have to respect. No, I am not saying that Butcher should just start indiscriminately bombing away from the back on the power play. If a passing lane is available, he should take it. But a few more shots here and there would help.
The biggest conclusion is that with his six legitimate assists out of his eight awarded assists, it is fair to think that Butcher is for real. At least as a “for real” power play contributor. He has demonstrated that he can find teammates in good situations and continue offensive plays that may be ultimately successful. He is not just making a pass and getting an ‘A’ for someone else doing the work. Sure, he has two “cheap” secondary assists to inflate his totals. Even in those cases, it was apparent that Butcher was make a reasonable decision on the puck in that moment he did have it. It helps Butcher (and the team) tremendously that the Devils have a shooting percentage of about 20% in all situations when he’s on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. That will not likely last. What I think will last is that Butcher will continue to make passes to put his teammates in positions where they can succeed. I learned that from the legitimate assists he did earn and I find that conclusion exciting for Butcher’s future in New Jersey.
I’m impressed with what Butcher has done so far. What do you think of his eight assists? Do you agree with what I’m calling a legitimate assist? Do you think Butcher is for real? If not, what does he need to do to show that he is? What are your expectations for the young defenseman now that he has played five NHL games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Butcher and his assists in the comments. Thank you for reading.