On Monday, I wrote about how the Devils should pursue Will Butcher. I thought then and still think the Devils should make a case to sign the impending free agent defenseman out of the University of Denver. I thought then that there were two challenges for the Devils. The first is that Butcher can only sign an entry level contract. That means any pitch would have to be focused on convincing why Butcher should sign an ELC with New Jersey as opposed to the real possibility of signing with a better team. The second was that the blueline may not be so free for Butcher to just come in and receive ice time. There are a lot of bodies now vying for a few spots and since Ray Shero brought in several of those bodies himself, I doubt he’ll cast them aside immediately. Adding Butcher adds to a crowded blueline. That’s what I argued then.
Now, I have to admit that I was not looking at that issue correctly. I was wrong with that second point. Partially because, well, the quality of those bodies is not very high. It is not unreasonable to think that Butcher has a good chance of making New Jersey right away. The other part is because I forgot something I usually spell out every year or so. The Devils have needed depth well beyond their 23 active roster spots. We have witnessed call-ups and waiver pick-ups and players get hurt, traded, or waived away. However, putting a number on it really highlights how many players are used over an 82-game campaign.
To demonstrate, here are the counts of Devils who made at least one appearance in a NHL regular season, by position, over the last ten seasons. To sort out those who have received just a “cup of coffee” in the NHL, I’ve also made the same count for those who have made it to at least ten games, also by position. All numbers are from NHL.com:
For the last ten seasons, the Devils have used at least thirty players in their last nine seasons. They have been consistently in the 30-32 player range in seven of their last ten seasons for players who have played at least ten games with New Jersey. While the re-building Devils of 2015-2016 have had the most total players play; the 2016-17 team is not out of place compared with the teams earlier in this decade. Whether it was a playoff contending team or a playoff-less team, the Devils used well over 23 players in a season.
Looking a little more closely at position, goaltender is the only one of the three that has been relatively stable in terms of number used. They have never had to use more than four in a season and only once in their last ten seasons did a third goalie make ten or more appearances.
There have been a lot more usage among the skaters. The forward groups of the last eight seasons have had at least five extras who have played close to an eighth of the regular season. Whether that was new talent brought in or a forward to fill in for someone hurt; plenty of people received opportunities. As for defensemen, the Devils used enough defensemen to at least fill two blueline depth charts over a season in five out of their last ten. The fewest was nine, or three additional defenders from the traditional six-defenseman set-up. In terms of the number of blueliners who have played more than just a handful of games, the range has been set to eight to ten over a season. In other words, the #7 and #8 guys in the organization reliably got into enough games to be noticeable. Your Peter Harrolds, Seth Helgesons, Niclas Havelids, Dalton Prouts, and their ilk.
In other words, Butcher joining a group that features regulars (Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Damon Severson when he re-signs, and John Moore) and men battling for spots (Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, Michael Kapla, Yaroslav Dablenko, and Dalton Prout) would make it seem like it is a crowded picture. But given history (and assuming they are good enough), all of these defensemen should be prepared to receive minutes at some point in 2017-18. There could even be others given shots whether it is a veteran minor leaguer (e.g. Viktor Loov, Brian Strait) or someone else the Devils pick up. The point is that there is room for Butcher and perhaps even more defenders, should Shero swing a deal or transaction for someone else too.
To argue that a challenge in signing Butcher is that there are too many bodies on the blueline is not really a good one. I was wrong to make it. While it may take some convincing of Butcher and his people that he would get ice time - and, based on the comments of the initial post, that should be given - but it could be done. History shows that Butcher would get plenty of games even he ends up as the #7 defenseman after training camp. Or whoever else does. Although, I do agree he could make a great case to be a regular right from day one if he plays as well as he showed at Denver.