New Jersey Devils defenseman Will Butcher is clearly Will Butcher. But in this season, there have been two versions of Butcher. One who has played rather poorly; a shocking surprise after being arguably New Jersey’s best defenseman last season. The other is a defenseman who may not be perfect, but his on-ice rates are way better than what you may think. Today, I want to present the question to you that has been on my mind: Which Will Butcher is the real one in this season?
This is a valid question to ask Butcher will play a significant role on the defense for at least the next three years. Back in July, general manager Ray Shero, Butcher, and Butcher’s people agreed to a three-season contract worth $11.2 million per CapFriendly. The 24-year old defenseman went from a maximum-value entry level contract to a base salary of $3.5 million for this season and will make a little more in each of the next two seasons. It was a well-earned contract, too. As I noted when he signed the deal on July 31, Butcher was arguably the Devils’ best defenseman last season and he was quite good in 2017-18. He may not be the defenseman to build your blueline around but he was certainly a good one who deserved a bigger role in 2019-20. There were signs that he was getting it too. Then reality hit.
Twenty-Seven Games and Two Versions of Will Butcher
I do not think I need to explain that the 2019-20 season for the New Jersey Devils has been terrible. Instead of battling for a playoff spot, they are well outside of the playoff picture. Instead of taking a big step forward after an awful 2018-19 campaign, they are actually a little worse than where they were on December 8, 2018 per Hockey-Reference. The team is littered with problems and the defense is no different. While they remain great at preventing high danger chances against in 5-on-5 and therefore have a really good expected goals against rate, the team has bled attempts, shots, and medium-danger scoring chances that have led to many goals against. And despite the names on the paper, the blueliners have not really been a big factor on offense either at even strength or the power play.
Back on November 18, 2019, I recorded an episode of Garden State of Hockey with Dan (it was posted two days later) and we received an interesting question. One of the listeners wanted us to rank the defensemen. At the time, I recalled the 5-on-5 on-ice rates and was shocked to find Will Butcher among the worst of the team. While he was not dead last in any category, the on-ice percentages were amid the likes of Mirco Mueller, Matt Tennyson, and the four games of Connor Carrick. Unlike those three, Butcher was third on the team in 5-on-5 ice time. An on-ice rate is not necessarily one player’s fault. However, seeing Butcher with CF%, SF%, xGF%, and SCF% values around or lower than 45% over a 17 game span made me think he had something to do with it. As such, I called out Butcher as one of the most disappointing defensemen on team at the time.
Since then, Butcher has played better in the last ten games. Or, more accurately, the Devils have been much better with Butcher on the ice 5-on-5. So much so that Butcher’s numbers were better than everyone else’s from P.K. Subban to Sami Vatanen. They are even superior to what he put up last season. This is not to say that Butcher has been totally amazing in the last ten games. There were mistakes made; but everyone makes mistakes - especially on this Devils team. In terms of the run of play overall, he has been far from a disappointment. He appears to be a big asset, something the Devils sorely lack on the blueline as only Tennyson has been on his level in 5-on-5 play. Not coincidentally, Butcher has played quite a bit with Tennyson.
This is a stunning difference. The first version of Butcher was played like an total defensive liability. Even if he was a little more productive in his first 17 games, it does not make up for the fact that when he was on the ice, the opposition often pinned the Devils back. Butcher on the left was not just posting bad on-ice rate stats but some abysmal swings in those stats compared to when he was off the ice based on his relative rates. When it came to scoring chances, high-danger and otherwise, Butcher was the worst on the Devils blueline and near to worst in the other categories. As much as people have criticized the likes of Taylor Hall, Cory Schneider, the team as a whole and so forth, Butcher was having a terrible start to the season that flew under-the-radar.
The second and more recent run of games for Butcher shows that he was one of the team’s best skaters in 5-on-5. For all of these percentages, 50% is a break-even point and the Devils soared above that in all five of these categories when Butcher was on the ice. Not that the Devils played particularly well in these last ten games but it was not like the team suffered greatly when Butcher took a shift. If anything, when Butcher stepped on the ice, the team suddenly out-performed their opposition by a healthy margin. Even in scoring chances and high-danger chances, which was particularly bad in Butcher’s first seventeen games. Only Tennyson had numbers similar and better than Butcher in these past ten games, but Butcher still played more than him and maintained these rates so it’s not like Tennyson was carrying the play.
What Could Lead to the Differences?
The man with the 5-on-5 stats on the left side of the chart is the same man with the 5-on-5 stats on the right side of the chart. Which is the real one? For the sake of the Devils, I hope it is the man on the right. The one on the left concerns me, performances that bad for 17 games suggests to me more than just a simple slump. So let us take a closer look at the chart.
Let us rule out what really is not different. The offensive production is not appreciably better. While Butcher had a higher individual expected goals rate, he surpassed it in both ranges. His rate of shots is higher in the last ten games and his rate of attempts is about the same. Even so, this is about five and three points, respectively. So it is not like Butcher has been a massive producer to make people think he is better/worse than he is.
The Devils did not play all that well in their last ten games either. In their last ten, they went 2-7-1 and one of those two wins featured a game where defense was entirely optional. We can rule out that the team was anything close to hot and Butcher benefited from the heat.
We know the team’s systems have not changed. Alain Nasreddine was largely in charge of the defense as an assistant to John Hynes. Nasreddine has been an assistant to Hynes for about a decade as I understand it. After Hynes was fired, Nasreddine was named the interim coach. Not much has changed with how the Devils have defended their zone or broke out of it or how they handle forechckers or how they attack on offense. Even if Nasreddine does have some different ideas, with only one practice and three games under his belt as the interim head coach, it not at all likely he had any time to flesh them out with the players and other staff members, much less implement them for games. We can rule that aspect out too.
The deployment is did have some changes. Butcher’s 16:45 was the third most on the Devils in his 17 games. In the last ten, Butcher’s ice time dropped a bit to 16:13 - which still was third most on the Devils. Butcher has received a higher rate of offensive zone starts in the last ten games with an OZS% (offensive zone start) rate of 68%. However, he was still deployed more on offense in his first ten games given his OZS% rate was 53%. It does support the idea that: the offense on the ice was the main difference between these two versions of Butcher.
Not only did Butcher start in a more favorable location on the ice, the Devils were simply that much better at attacking in 5-on-5 between these two versions of Butcher. You can see it in four of the five on-ice categories. Shot attempts were way, way, way, way up for the Devils with Butcher on the ice whereas the shots against rate took a slight decrease. Scoring chances were flipped on their head. The Devils became much more prolific at generating them - high danger and otherwise - while improving in how much they allow. These swings in SCF and HDCF led to a drop in xGA/60 and a big increase - over a goal! - in xGF/60.
The fifth category is in shots and it demands a little more commentary. In Butcher’s 17 games, the Devils rate of shots for was under 26 and shots against was under 30. In the past ten games, Butcher’s on-ice shots against rate actually went up to around 34. Normally, that is bad. That is a high rate of shots against. It is telling that Butcher’s relative SA/60 rate was only +0.03 - which suggests that the Devils have given up a ton of shots in general in these past ten games. But what makes it positive for the Devils is an incredible shots for rate of over 40 per 60 minutes. That is a very high shots for rate. So much so that it overcomes a second, smaller but still dramatic increase in shots against. From a big picture point of view, this is much more than fine. It is even great. For those who may think Butcher still has a lot of issues in his own end of the rink as of late, the high SA/60 suggests you’re right. For those who want the Devils to be more offensive, then this points to someone who may be having a very good impact on that, even if it is an indirect one (Butcher averaging 2.4 shots per game is not going to lead a near 41 shot per 60 minute rate).
Three conclusions come to mind with this information. One, it suggests that Butcher (and Tennyson, while I’m at it) did not become an incredible defender over the past ten games. While there were improvements in the other four stats which suggests he did get a bit better in his performances, the shooting rate belies Butcher’s abilities in preventing them. The beneficial news is that the relative on-ice rate stats for Butcher does show some real improvements with respect to scoring chances, so some credit should be given to Butcher for that. Two, it really suggests that the real driver for these improvements is who has been in front of Butcher. That there are forwards Butcher has gelled incredibly well with as opposed to others. Three, the gains in offense did lead to some of the improvements in the against rates in spite of the shots against rate soaring by four shots per sixty minutes - which, again, was overtaken by the shots for rate jumping by fourteen per sixty.
Who Has Butcher Played Well With?
Unfortunately, the with or without you stats at Natural Stat Trick do not have a break down by dates. However, Natural Stat Trick does have one for defensive pairings. Up until November 18, Butcher’s most common pairings by ice time were with P.K. Subban (83:48), Sami Vatanen (82:24), and Tennyson (59:30). Among these three, the only 5-on-5 stat line that did not look heinous was Butcher-Vatanen. Even then, the duo had an on-ice 5-on-5 xGF% of 43.9%, which is rather low and surprising given that they were that far off from breaking even in shots and attempts and they were positive in high-danger chance differential. The Butcher-Tennyson pairing was getting creamed in the run of play, so much so that I was shocked they received nearly 60 minutes together. It may have been by default if Subban was with Greene or Damon Severson, and Vatanen had a different partner. It was still ugly.
But in the last ten games, Tennyson was not only Butcher’s most common partner (56:40 played) but the pairing put up a CF% above 58%, an xGF% above 67% (!!), and SF% above 57%. The contentious by observation and in theory pairing was actually playing a lot better than what anyone would have expected in mid-November. It did not last very long in those ten games, especially now that Tennyson is on IR as of last Tuesday or three games ago. But these results were too good to ignore. Butcher’s other common pairings over the last ten games - Subban (41:24), Severson (19:48), Vatanen (16:51) - were also quite good across the board in 5-on-5 play. This does suggest that Butcher has improved his play. However, the increases in the 5-on-5 rate stats were largely on the offense and that is likely to be driven by the forwards.
In looking at Butcher’s with or without you for the whole season suggests that Butcher has played well over the whole season with Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, and Nico Hischier. They are among the most common forwards that Butcher has played with in this season so far. And if you look at the for-rate stats for those players, you may notice some really high ones for Palmieri and Hall. With Butcher and Palmieri or Hall, the Devils have a CF/60 above 64, a SF/60 rate above 35, and a SCF/60 rate around or above 29. It is a little less for Hischier but the combination also stands out. Those are not one-to-one with post-November 18 Butcher and the combination with each forward has not yielded a great xGF% or HDCF%. The only forward of some significant time with Butcher with offensive on-ice rate stats as high as that is 89 minutes with Nikita Gusev, however almost as much has been allowed as much as it has been created. It is not clear-cut but this all suggests that Butcher spending more time with the Devils’ top line in front of him really helped the on-ice offensive rates soar and, by extension, make Butcher’s overall on-ice rates look better. The added offensive zone starts would also facilitate that a little bit too.
In contrast, the combinations of Butcher with Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman, and Gusev has been problematic from a percentage standpoint. It almost does not seem intuitive. Zajac and Coleman are among the better defensive forwards on the team, if not the best. Yet, with them in front of Butcher, the Devils have been pinned back a lot. While the for on-ice rate stats were high with Gusev, the against on-ice rate stats were often higher. This all suggests that these forwards - much less as a line - went with Butcher like oil and water.
Again, there is no breakdown by date so I am speculating here. It would not surprise me that around the middle of November, the coaching staff took Butcher away from Zajac, Coleman, and Gusev and gave him (and Tennyson) more shifts with Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri. While the team results did not come, it at least made Butcher’s pairing less of a black hole in 5-on-5 and more of something that could make something theoretically happen on offense. It would make more sense as to what happened before and after November 18 than believing Butcher somehow “figured it out.”
So Is It All Good for Butcher Now? Not Exactly
I am even less sure if the current version of Butcher is the real one and will help the Devils down the stretch of this season. As a defenseman, Butcher is going to have to play with different forward lines. The coaching staff is not always going to be able to get the preferred group in front of him. Especially on the road for zone starts and especially if the team takes an icing or is getting back to rhythm after special teams.
Further, this whole post up until now has focused on 5-on-5 play. This is partially because 5-on-5 is the most applicable situation to determine if someone is playing well or not. This is partially because there is really not much to say about Butcher on the power play. That is an issue in of itself. Butcher came out of college and jumped right in as the point man on the Devils’ top power play unit back in 2017. He held that spot for most of 2018-19. Way back in July, I figured that the trade for P.K. Subban would push Butcher to the second power play unit. I never figured that the process would be that Subban would start on the first unit, get pushed down to the second unit as Sami Vatanen replaced him, Butcher would be removed entirely for a period of time on the power play, and then return to only the second unit.
The Devils’ power play has not been good this season and nearly all of the production has come from the primary unit. The only defenseman on the team that has a power play point is the current point man on the first power play unit: Sami Vatanen. Butcher not only has no points but he just has one shot in the 34 minutes he has received. The second PP unit usually gets less time to work with on the power play; but to have just one shot at all points to Butcher not really making a good case for himself. I can agree that the power play designs and organization are the fault of the coach, but the players have to perform and Butcher has been a shadow of what he did with the man advantage from most of the past two seasons. That is concerning given that his skillset could contribute quite a bit to a power play. If he is not helping out there, then it limits what he can contribute overall. That adds to the disappointment of his season, the last ten games notwithstanding.
From pure observation, Butcher’s issues on the ice as a defenseman remain to be issues at times. One-on-one defending remains a challenge for Butcher. While his smaller stature does not help him much in board battles or in battles in front of the net, Butcher really is all over the place when opposing player or forechecker is coming at him. More often than not, he will be beaten or just caught on his heels so the opposing player can go around him. This is magnified by who he has been playing with this season. Tennyson tends to get lost in his own end, recent games notwithstanding. Stick him with someone bigger like Mueller and the issues still remain as Mueller is arguably worse in tighter spaces. Despite what some may tell you, being big and strong does not mean you know what to do with players in your face. Add in some rough nights with handling passes and taking them, and I can see why those who just watch games come away generally unimpressed with Butcher. I think that ignores a lot of the successful shifts Butcher has had in the past few weeks. But we cannot be honest and say that Butcher has progressed a lot from his first season. While this may only be his third season, he is turning 25 in a month. What we are seeing from him now may be what anyone will get from him.
And notice who Butcher has been playing with as of late. He was primarily paired with Tennyson in these last ten games, which have looked great. In the game against Nashville, he was mostly with Mirco Mueller. Even though he has about 125 minutes with Subban and almost 100 minutes with Vatanen, the majority of that took place in those 17 games where Butcher was lit up. By the end of last season, there were signs pointing to Butcher being a top-four defenseman on this team. While he is third on the team in 5-on-5 ice time per game, being paired with Tennyson or Mueller meant he was on the third pairing. That he has done well recently brings to mind the question: Is Butcher just a really good third pairing defenseman and only can perform in a larger role with a particular defenseman that the Devils may not happen? I want to be wrong about that. I want to be able to say that Butcher is at least a second-pairing caliber defenseman in this league. Yes, he has issues but few defensemen in the league have none. I do not know if the coaching staff sees that and that is underwhelming of at least someone.
When you put all this together, it makes me realize that while Butcher has been playing much better - or at least the Devils have been much better with Butcher - recently, it has been an underwhelming season. Butcher may be in the process of salvaging it. The best case scenario is that Butcher is able to sustain his current run of form in 5-on-5, he is able to get some traction on the power play, and he can perform well with forwards not on the top line. That will mean that the first 17 games of Butcher’s season was an aberration and we can just move on from it. It will mean that current form of Butcher is the real one, or at least much closer to it.
However, I am not confident enough yet to believe that is happening. If it is possible to have a bad slump for seventeen games, then it is certainly possible to play above your level for ten. It does not inspire a ton of confidence that that his recent success has come with mostly playing with the top line and Matt Tennyson. Nor that the recent success has been great for the run of play but not necessarily for Butcher’s own numbers. And even with those ten games, Butcher remains stuck to the second unit on the power play where has done next to nothing on it. His issues on defense remain real ones. I do not want this to be true, but if these ten games are Butcher when he is “hot” then I am not looking forward to what the rest of the season has in store for Butcher.
Overall, the lack of progression from Butcher as a player is a disappointment in of itself. Players are certainly allowed to have bad or mixed seasons. This is only his third professional season, after all. And it is not like it is has been totally bad since his past ten games are in the process of making up for the really awful seventeen games in 5-on-5 play before them. It is also true that among the Devils’ problems in 2019-20, Will Butcher’s season ranks lower than several of them. But that I am asking this question in early December means it is a kind of a problem. Which Will Butcher is the Real Will Butcher for the Devils? I hope it is more of the guy we have seen in the last two and half weeks and not the player who was drowning in the run of play in October. As ever with this season: We shall see.
In the meantime, I would like to know your opinion about Will Butcher’s season so far? Are you disappointed by it? Do you think he has been OK this season? Could he be doing better? What would you do with Butcher if you were the coach? Most of all, which Butcher do you think is the real one: the player from the first 17 games this season or the player that we have seen in the last 10? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Butcher in the comments. Thank you for reading.