When Lou Lamoriello was done as Devils GM, Ray Shero came in and immediately noticed something — people don’t typically want to come to play hockey in New Jersey. This is what makes the Will Butcher acquisition just amazing from my perspective. To elaborate, I’ll look at Devils recent free agency, current roster’s free agents, and then talk about what makes Will Butcher so special.
Big recent UFA Signings
Using Pro Sports Transactions, I scraped the database of roster-related transaction the Devils have made. Then I filtered for only multi-year, 1-way, July free agent signings in the past 10 years that weren’t re-signs. This is the list...
I didn’t manually go back to every year - this was a text filter, so if the notation was atypical I may have missed a few, but nothing stuck out to me. Comment if I missed anything.
Let’s browse this list for a moment. The signings that strike me as likely to have been competitive are Brian Rolston coming off a 59-point season with Minnesota, Dainius Zubrus after a career-high 60-point season, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder after a few years as mainstays of their respective bluelines, and Cammalleri after scoring 26 goals in 63 games with Calgary.
So we have had a few situations where we grabbed a player likely to get attention from several other teams. Let’s break them down one by one.
Motivations of Big UFAs Choosing Devils
Dainius Zubrus, 2007: In his 2007 season, Zubrus posted a career-high 60 points with a combination of Washington and Buffalo. Also, after being traded at the deadline, he went on to be third among Sabres forwards in ice time in the playoffs en route to a Conference Finals trip. He earned a well-deserved reputation as a very solid two-way forward. This earns you a healthy chunk of change, but the Devils threw 6-years ($3.4M AAV) at him which was likely irresistible to a guy who had never had more than two years. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt though, having come off his first taste of the 2nd round since his rookie season, that he wanted to go to a contender as well. While that contract actually turned out pretty well, his 3-year extension did not as he was bought out. He did get his shot at the cup in 2011-12, but ... you know what I don’t wanna talk about it. Why did he come to Jersey? Term and Cup Contention
Brian Rolston, 2008: Rolston was coming off a good season with 59 points, but his points per game had dropped from 0.96 to 0.82 to 0.73 in the past 3 years. This isn’t surprising because he was 35 years old at the time. Nonetheless, the Devils offered him $20.25 million over 4 years on a 35+ contract which would make him count against us even if he retired. This all to come back to an organization that should have some good will with him. He went on to plateau at about 0.5 points per game in this stint before being traded. Why did he come to Jersey? Term and Familiarity...mostly Term
Anton Volchenkov, 2010: The big Russian spent 7 years in Ottawa — being among their better defensive defensemen in the latter half of that. Regularly in the top 10 in blocks, (8th, 2nd, and 8th in the NHL for 2007-2010) he was an absolute chore to get a puck through. When the Devils lost in 5 to them in 2007, most people remember the “CASH” line (Captain Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley), but I remember thinking it was impossible to get pucks through Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, and Anton Volchenkov. He was good and worth the $4.25M AAV, but again, likely not the 6 years. This is a fact that would be born out, seeing as he too would be bought out before the contract was over. I’m sure other people would have offered him a similar contract for his services, but the Devils had just lost Paul Martin who had kept the D afloat the last 3 years after Stevens, Niedermeyer, and Rafalski had all left in the 3 before that. It forced their hand for Anton and our next guy as well. Why did he come to Jersey? Mostly Term, also Opportunity
Henrik Tallinder, 2010: Like Volchenkov, Talinder had been a solid 2nd-pairing defender for a team for the past 7 years. Unlike Volchenkov, Tallinder was just an okay shot blocker and had only 2 years of postseason experience. At 6’4’’, he also served to make our line bigger. He was a thoroughly unremarkable player and got 4 years at $3.37M AAV. There had been rumors that the Devils were interested in Dan Hamuis this offseason (6 years $4.5M AAV to Canucks) and settled for Tallinder and/or A-Train. This was yet another contract that would end up being ditched. Why did he pick Jersey? Term and Money
Mike Cammalleri, 2014: Coming off a season in which he put up 26 goals in 63 games, Cammalleri was a desirable free agent. What he was NOT was a reliable long-term investment. After going to Montreal in 2009, he never played 70 games in a season (and still hasn’t). He produced when on the ice — just as he did for the Devils, but could not be counted on to stay healthy. In 2009, as a a 27 year old, without the intense injury history, and coming off an 81-game, 82-point season, he signed for 5-years $6M AAV. The Devils gave 5 years at $5M AAV to the 32-year-old edition, after 5 injury-riddled seasons that never eclipsed 50 points. Just like Volchenkov and Tallinder, this can be explained by a desperate Lou Lamoriello. The last season they had lost Kovalchuk and Clarkson — Parise the year before that. He threw contracts at Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe and got Jaromir Jagr and it wasn’t enough so he went for a psuedo-big-ticket FA and gave him actual-big-ticket money and term. Again, he would eventually be bought out. Why did he come to Jersey? Term, Money, and ... Faith?
Perspective on Devils’ UFA Past and Present
On my assessment, every one of those players that joined the Devils were offered huge term. Unsurprisingly, only Zubrus would see the end of his contract actually in New Jersey. He got bought out the next time around. The Devils have always had a hard time attracting talent and since we became bad, it’s been almost impossible. We’ve had to offer big contracts that ended up burying us to get people to come here. This extends the rebuild which makes us bad longer. This cycle is why Lou is in Toronto now.
And that’s not the only problem, the Devils have a nasty habit of losing players that want to go back home. Brian Rafalski went back to Michigan, David Clarkson to Toronto, Zach Parise to Minnesota, Ilya Kovalchuk to Russia, Scott Niedermeyer to his brother, etc. Even if it’s not home, sometimes we just can’t convince guys to stay. We couldn’t hold on to Brian Gionta or Scott Gomez either.
And the present didn’t seem like it would be much different. According to my list of 29 Devils players that may play this year (delineated somewhat arbitrarily), the ways Devils have originally joined the franchise have been 12 draftees, 6 trades (non of whom had NTCs), 5 UFAs, 4 UDFAs (undrafted free agents), 1 waiver pickup (Noesen), and 1 PTO (Hayes). So, 18 players had no say in coming here initially (though many have made decisions to stay — for which I am grateful), and 6 would have been unemployed if they didn’t. Butcher joins only John Moore, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Boyle, and Drew Stafford as players who can be argued to have chosen the Devils of their own free will. Why did those 4 join?
Moore spoke deferentially about he Devils history with defenders and admiring Scott Niedermeyer which, in conjunction with hopefully coming here to stick it to the Rangers, did convince me chose us for good reasons. Shero liked Lovejoy and so probably slightly overpaid for him. Boyle “felt needed” and was excited to be a leader for a young group of forwards. Signing on for two feasibly playoff-less seasons to serve as a mentor for young forwards and possibly not see the spoils of that war is definitely an endearing motive. And Drew Stafford’s phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook and we needed a right wing.
Only Moore and Boyle really chose the Devils for the right reasons IMO. Stafford would be unemployed otherwise and Lovejoy would be paid appropriately otherwise. But Moore is a guy that wasn’t given a qualifying offer from the Coyotes so tough to say there was a stampede of suitors. And Boyle is a 31-year-old 4th liner. According to CapFriendly, the Rangers gave him a 3-year/$5.1M contract when he was 26 after a 35-point season. We just gave him 2-year/$5M at 32 years old after a 22-point season so we likely overpaid for him a bit too.
So it had seemed like more of the same. The Devils continued to swing and miss on signing the big ticket guys — frequently losing out to the Rangers (Vesey, Shattenkirk) — and overpaying for the small ticket guys. Shero basically sat out both of his past two free agencies, as evidenced by John calling him reasonable in 2016, and disappointing in 2017 . I even wrote about it in assessing the Devils rebuild clock:
UFAs will seldom if ever pick the Devils. We have to create our core by drafting well, trading for talent, and re-signing when possible. The moves that some teams can afford to do in UFA periods, we will need to replicate with extra trades (See: Mojo, Palms, Hall). The necessity for additional flexibility in this trade-dependent rebuild is why Shero is getting the best possible value rather than plugging holes and it is why he’s keeping cap space open even though he isn’t signing big UFAs. This vision for the rebuild was supported to me by Shero telling Gross that he may use forwards to acquire D-men. Much like the other Harris and Blitzer franchise (the 76ers) this rebuild is using asset management. And so, while I’ve been hot and cold on individual moves from Shero this offseason, they seem mostly, if not completely, justifiable through the lens of this method of rebuild.
I was convinced that the Devils would continue to either not get desirable free agents, or be forced to massively overpay for them. So when the buzz started about Will Butcher, I was as pessimistic as one could be. John wrote an article saying we should pursue him, but then he said the same about Shattenkirk. I was prepared for the worst (little did I know).
...Enter Will Butcher
Originally fielding requests from, reportedly, as many as 10 teams, Butcher chose the bottom-feeders from the burbs to start his NHL career with.
I thought there was absolutely no reason for him to pick us. He was born in Wisconsin, played college hockey in Denver (so this time he’s fleeing home to come to us), is completely unfamiliar with the east coast, his contract would be an ELC so no one could offer him more than 2-years/$925K, 10 teams were in on the hunt (4 on the final day), the Devils are a bad team, in a bad market, and — most importantly — THIS NEVER HAPPENS (see rest of article).
So what were Will Butcher’s reasons for picking the Devils? Listen to him explain it. He thinks he’s a fit for the system, likes John Hynes, hopes to play like and learn from Andy Greene, is excited about our young forwards, liked the fans at the draft in Prudential where his “buddy” Steve Santini (they played together a ton throught the US National System) was drafted.
How can you not love this guy for picking us and for the reasons he picked us? He has shown us that, as Alex posited last week, desirable free agents can, in fact, come here. After a bunch of moves that seem to just toggle our rebuild clock between adjacent positions, we finally get an irrefutable plus that cost us no assets at all. As the first notable name in a long time — and the first ever in the Shero-era to do so — he has restored my faith in hockey players to sometimes shock the world and pick the underdog. And for reminding me of that, he will forever be in my mind as Will Butcher — the man who picked the Devils.
My dramatic tone aside, how much did this surprise you? How much did it excite you? Are you annoyed that I’m making a big fuss over a guy that’s likely a 3rd pairing player right now and hopefully a 2nd pairing in the future? Am I missing obvious players who also picked the Devils? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!