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The Lionetti Yearly: Does Will Butcher Make the Opening Night Roster?

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In what is becoming a post with some regularity for me (excluding 2015), I take a look at a player who could be in either the NHL or AHL to begin the season and predict which way that player goes.

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

So far, for two of the past three season that I have been writing for AAtJ (man time flies), I have written an article about one player who could go either way between starting the season in the NHL or the AHL. With this year being one with a lot of competition between young players, I decided I would bring back this series and take a look at one member of the New Jersey Devils who could be opening the season in New Jersey or Binghamton depending on his preseason showings.

Prior to 2014-15, I questioned if Damon Severson would be on the Devils opening night roster (again, time keeps on slippin’); while I predicted he would not make the cut, I was proven wrong, just like the #36 looks wrong on Damon. I was happy when Severson made the cut, and moreover performed strongly until his injury that season. The series returned last year with Steven Santini this time on the hot seat; despite the correct prediction of him making the roster (and putting me at .500), the Devils probably should have started him in the A, as he was a healthy scratch (for reasons still unknown) before being sent down anyway to get some game action.

On the proverbial “hot seat” this year is Will Butcher, who signed a 2 year entry level contract with New Jersey in August. Today we look at Butcher so far, what to expect, and whether or not I think he’s on the opening night roster to face the team that drafted him.

Career So Far

For those unaware, Will Butcher spent the last 4 years as a college man at the University of Denver, working his way up to being their captain in his senior season; while his freshman and sophomore numbers were respectable (as seen by his stats courtesy of Elite Prospects), his junior and senior seasons were where he really stood out for his production. He was a 5th round selection of the Colorado Avalanche back in the 2013 Draft, but was informed near the end of his junior season that the Avs would not be signing him.

Even with the team doing a 180 during his senior year, Butcher opted instead to test free agency. When he selected our New Jersey Devils to be the team that he joined, many fans were happy for two reasons: one, because we had signed a prized college free agent and two, because it’s a free asset with the exception of player salary.

Butcher so far has played for the Devils in the Prospects Challenge and the team’s first preseason game; he stood out among the youngsters in the challenge; as for the preseason, let’s move on to what we should expect from him.

Expectations

Even though Butcher is the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner, expectations have been tempered for him; college free agents (even award winning ones) tend to be hit or miss players and even though he has performed well so far, we don’t exactly have a large body of professional games to base our opinions on. I did get to watch him play Monday night against the Capitals (the one benefit of being an out of market fan and having to buy Game Center is preseason games that we don’t broadcast being broadcast by the opposition) and he looked pretty comfortable against Washington. He made one bad gaffe that led to a shorthanded goal against, but otherwise, he had a very good game with two shots on goal, two takeaways and two blocked shots.

I don’t think anyone is coming in and saying Butcher will be a top pairing guy, but he could be a realistic Top 4 option for the Devils. With everything he has shown so far, I don’t think that would be an unrealistic expectation. He is also still young, with room to grow his game; with that in mind I do fully expect him to be an NHL player and sooner rather than later.

My Verdict

This prediction is a tricky one; much like my prediction article on Severson from 2014, there are a number of defenders that could block Butcher from being in the NHL. Dalton Prout as New Jersey’s seventh defender is a pretty popular opinion right now; he played well on Monday and having him as the “not every night” guy would be better than putting a kid in that difficult role. With Sevs, Andy Greene, and John Moore as locks, there are only 3 remaining spots; Steven Santini and Ben Lovejoy are good bets to make the team as well, meaning if Prout is indeed the #7, there’s one spot left between Butcher and Mirco Mueller. An additional layer to this is that Mueller needs to pass through waivers to go to Binghamton; the Devils also could opt to carry 8 defenders.

I’m going to go for a bold prediction again, but not in the way that many would think: Butcher makes the team as does Mueller, but the Devils only carry 7 D. Ben Lovejoy, despite his status as a veteran, is waived at the end of the preseason; if the Devils want to be competitive sooner rather than later, the Rev is the one who has to go. His lack of speed and his inability to effectively position himself is costing this team points; while the Devils might not be ready to compete just yet, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to ice the best roster possible. It’s getting close to the point of being a slap in the face that management/coaching leaves him in the lineup every night, as it seems almost universally understood that LJ is not good in Hynes’ system. Butcher had that one costly mistake on Monday night, but I’d rather a 23 year old go through growing pains than watch a 33 year old make the same mistakes and worse. I would also accept Prout being waived and the Rev as the #7, but in a limited sample to start the preseason, Prout has been better.

Now that I’m off my Lovejoy tangent, D pairs go Greene-Severson, Butcher-Santini, and Mueller-Moore though I’m not sure who plays which side on that bottom pairing. Calling Butcher making the team probably isn’t bold, but we’ve been surprised by our staff before and their allegiance to LJ might send Will to Binghamton; we’ll find out in the next couple of weeks.

Your Verdict

And it’s that time again! What are your thoughts on Will Butcher so far? Is he going to be starting the season in New Jersey or Binghamton? What parts of his game do you like/dislike? Do you think I’m crazy or on the right track with Lovejoy being waived? Please leave any and all comments below; thanks for reading!