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The New Jersey Devils Should Pursue Defenseman Will Butcher

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Defenseman Will Butcher is expected to become an unrestricted free agent on August 15. This post explains that the New Jersey Devils should pursue him and try to sign him.

2017 NCAA Div I Men's Ice Hockey Championships
Will Butcher is a NCAA champion and the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner. The Devils should pursue him on August 15.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

August is right around the corner and usually this is a “dead” period of the NHL offseason. The vast majority of free agents have already been signed by now. Arbitration cases have mostly been heard and dealt with. Training camp remains weeks away. There is not a lot happening. However, there is one important date in the month: August 15. As of this day, any college player who is unsigned when their class graduates becomes an unrestricted free agent.

This is all defined in the NHL Contract Bargaining Agreement in Section 8.6(c). (This link goes to a PDF.) This date is only mentioned in the entire CBA in this section. It is not so much a loophole as it is a limit on how long a team can keep their rights to a drafted player should that player go to college. Section 8.6 defines similar limits for players drafted out of major junior leagues and leagues outside of North America. So just as teams have to sign junior and European-league-based players by the time they’re 20, teams have to sign a college player before August 15 of their graduation year. Dominik at Lighthouse Hockey wrote up a good breakdown of the rules back in 2013 if you want to learn more.

This option - which is what it is - has become a bigger deal in recent years. Jimmy Vesey, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 2016 as the country’s top college player, went through this route. He spurned Nashville to ultimately sign with Our Hated Rivals. It appears that Alex Kerfoot, who the Devils drafted in the fifth round in 2012, may test the market now that he has completed his career with Harvard. He has not signed with the Devils and there are no indications as of this writing that he will. But there is a bigger name than Kerfoot expected to be a free agent in mid-August: the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner, defenseman Will Butcher. And while it is not good to lose any prospective player in general, the Devils should pursue Butcher.

Let’s learn more about this free agent prospect like he was a draft prospect.

Who is Will Butcher?

Butcher is a 22-year old, left-shooting defenseman. According to Elite Prospects, he officially stands at 5’10” and 190 pounds. He came out of the United States National Team Development Program, where he was part of the 2012 gold medal team at the World Junior U-18 Tournament and the 2013 silver medal team at the same U-18 tournament. He also represented the United States at World Junior Championships in 2014 and 2015 while also going to the University of Denver. The accolades have piled up in the last few years for Butcher. He was a part of the Denver squad that won the conference championship in 2014; he was named one of the top three players on his team at the 2015 WJCs; he was named to the first all-star team in his conference and the second all-star team for Western based hockey teams by the NCAA in 2016; and this past season was just loaded. Butcher was the captain of the Denver team that won the whole Frozen Four; he was named to the first all-star team in his conference and in the NCAA tournament; he was awarded as the Best Offensive Defenseman by the NCHC conference; and, most of all, he won the Hobey Baker Award.

While his numbers do not exactly jump off the page, the defender has been a producer at every level of hockey he has played at so far. His achievements speak to that he’s more than just a compiler of points; he has been as effective as one could ask for as a defender at the college and youth levels. Butcher increased his point totals in each year at Denver (16, 18, 32, and 37) and he was a leader since his sophomore year, culminating as team captain for Denver’s successful 2016-17 campaign. If a team drafted a college-bound player and they went on to have a career like that, then that team should be pretty happy.

Unfortunately, the Colorado Avalanche - who drafted Butcher in the fifth round in 2013 - is not as he will not sign with the Avs.

Why is Butcher a Free Agent?

The CBA allows Butcher to be a free agent, but there’s more to the story than just a college player hoping that his successful college career could land him on a different team. Mike Chambers wrote the following on April 11, 2017 at the Denver Post:

Near the end of Butcher’s junior season a year ago, the Avalanche told Butcher’s “family adviser” the team was not interested in signing the 5-foot-10, 190-pound defenseman at any point. But that attitude toward Butcher was believed to have emanated from then-coach Patrick Roy, who was also the Avs’ vice president. Roy resigned in August, and the Avs had scouts or team executives at numerous DU home games this season. Assistant Avs general manager Chris MacFarland was at the Frozen Four in Chicago last weekend.

Roy poisoned this particular well. He told a rising prospect that the team wouldn’t sign him. That’s pretty harsh and it was probably the first time Butcher and his people started thinking about other options. I certainly do not blame Butcher for doing so. While Roy left the Colorado Avalanche months afterward, the damage was done. The current management tried but ultimately could not fix the situation. Adrian Dater wrote the following at BSN Denver on July 26, 2017:

“We informed the Avalanche of that decision,” Butcher’s agent, Brian Bartlett, told BSN Denver. “We appreciate what Colorado has done, and we’re not ruling out the Avalanche as a potential destination. But we just feel there will be other opportunities that should be explored too, and therefore we’re going (to the 15th).”

The Avalanche still have exclusive negotiating rights to Butcher until Aug. 15, but that is a Potemkin Village at this point. On that date, Butcher can take offers from any NHL team, and there are expected to be several suitors. The Avalanche can still make him offers, just like any other team, but at this point it’s fair to ask: If Butcher didn’t take any of the Avs’ offers before, what makes anyone think he’ll take one later?

Dater’s question is a very good one. I doubt Butcher has a change of heart, especially knowing that there are other teams that are interested. The quote from his agent, Brian Bartlett, reads to me as a professional way of stating, “Yeah, no, Colorado. Goodbye.”

If there is a lesson here, then it is that what is communicated to prospective players is crucial at all levels. Telling a player who has been performing very well that he will not be signed is just asking for that player to go elsewhere. Even if who informed that player is gone, it makes it significantly harder for the next member of management - Joe Sakic, in this case - to re-build the relationship. In any case, Colorado’s failure can now be someone else’s gain. Hopefully, it’ll be New Jersey’s.

What Others Have Said About Butcher

Immediately, the appeal for Butcher is clear: he’s a left-shooting defenseman with offensive skills. The Devils absolutely could use a left-shooting defenseman with anything resembling offensive skills. There is more to it than that.

Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports does an excellent job every year in scouting top NHL Draft prospects. He has recently done a similar report for Butcher, now that he is an impending free agent. You really should read the whole thing. The section about his offensive game really stuck out to me:

Butcher has very good vision and the ability to thread the needle on passes both to start the transition game and in setting up plays in the offensive zone. He also has a good shot, and understands how to get it through to the net and keep it low to create opportunities for tip-ins and rebounds for his teammates. He has good agility and walks the line well to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. Butcher also shows poise with the puck and can stick handle away from a forechecker, or to create space in the offensive zone.

This is exactly what the Devils should look for in a defenseman from an offensive perspective. The Devils need defenders who are able to competently read and make passes. It appears that is a strength for Butcher. The Devils need defenders to keep their shots low. It appears Butcher can do so. Being able to handle the puck is also a plus as well as not freak out when the pressure comes. It appears Butcher can do so. These are all traits that should make the Devils be interested in the defender.

Kerr wrote that while size will be an issue of sorts, but Butcher has been effective in his own end with respect to where he needs to be and getting pucks out of the zone. The transition game has been a real challenge for New Jersey last season; a defender who can at least move pucks more quickly would be a big help. Additionally, Kerr found plenty to like about Butcher’s skating - which is another plus in favor.

For a different perspective, Hayden Soboleski has had a running series of notes about Butcher over the years at Dobber Prospects. Soboleski has pointed out that Butcher has been running Denver’s power play for multiple years. While it is not a guarantee he could do so at the NHL level, that is another role of need for New Jersey. I would think someone who has done it at a lower level is more likely to be able to do so at the NHL than someone who has not performed in that spot in the past.

All together, Butcher appears to be the type of defenseman the Devils could really use to improve their blueline. How he will handle professional hockey is a real question. But the point is that he is someone who can step in right away and contribute, even in a smaller role to start. The Devils should absolutely be interested in signing him.

The Challenge in Pursuing Will Butcher

At this point, it’s clear that I want the Devils to go after Butcher because he will address several holes among the current defense. However, it will not be easy for two reasons.

First, Butcher can only sign an entry level contract. Since he is 22, the NHL CBA requires that his ELC is two-years long. Since it is also an entry level contract, it cannot be for more than $925,000 in salary. He can be offered bonuses; those are capped as well. Teams are limited with respect to what deals they can offer; the Devils cannot just out-bid everyone else.

This means that teams will have to convince Butcher and his people of other things they can offer that other teams cannot. This would be things like ice time, opportunity to play right away, the style of play, and the quality of the organization. The Devils could (and should) sell Butcher on the chance that he can play in New Jersey right from Day 1. That he will get every chance to be on a power play unit. That he can be a part of the “fast, attacking, and supportive” style Ray Shero wants to cultivate. The problem will arise if/when a team can offer all of that and be a playoff-ready or near-playoff-ready team. The Devils can sell opportunity and minutes, but they cannot claim success from recent years. If it comes down to that, then it will be a hard sell for Butcher.

The second issue is that the Devils’ blueline has become more and more crowded. No, not crowded with talent, but crowded with bodies. As of right now at CapFriendly, the Devils have Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore, Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, Dalton Prout, Michael Kapla, and Yaroslav Dablenko signed. (And others too.) Damon Severson will join this group when he re-signs with New Jersey. (He is a qualified restricted free agent, he must re-sign.) Out of that group, Greene, Severson, Lovejoy, and Moore are mortal locks to play. Butcher would have to battle with Mueller, Santini, Kapla, Prout, and Dablenko for minutes on a third pairing. The Devils could go ten-deep on defensemen in a season. But if the selling point for Butcher is that he can step in and play right away, then he or his people can look at the Devils’ depth chart and justifiably be skeptical. Further, Shero acquired Mueller, Kapla, Prout, and Dablenko. I doubt he will push them to the peripheral immediately for Butcher unless Butcher proves to be that good or something else happens. A Butcher signing could drive a trade just to clear up the blueline; but it is a challenge for management to consider as well.

These challenges are manageable, though. Shero can make worry about making room after signing Butcher. And it isn’t guaranteed that a better-quality team can make the play for Butcher like New Jersey can with respect to minutes and role. While this is all for an ELC, the Devils do have the cap space to offer a larger ELC than some other teams - which helps their cause too. Most of all, it comes all down to Butcher. If he is fine with New Jersey and likes what they’re doing, then that’s that. If not, then not. Such as it is with unrestricted free agents.

Your Take

I want the Devils to pursue Will Butcher. Do you? What do you think the Devils will have to sell Butcher on to make it happen? Do you think the Devils can do it? If so, what would you expect from the defenseman? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Butcher in the comments. Thank you for reading.