Below are screenshots from Micah McCurdy’s Hockeyviz. They show how often, and on what pairing Devils defenders are being used this season.
Will Butcher has undoubtedly been given more responsibility as the season as gone on. After picking up more or less where he left off — 3rd pairing with Lovejoy and PP1 time — around game 25, he got a promotion. Since then, he’s actually spent just about as much time on the “first” pairing as he has the “bottom” one. When Sami Vatanen was healthy, he and Butcher were getting basically the same amount of time as Severson-Greene. For a little bit more clarity on the precise breakdown of this additional responsibility, take a look at the piece I wrote a month ago and if Hynes is trusting him more. But that piece was just about how the responsibility itself has increased. I want to look briefly on if he is handling it well.
Butcher the Maligned
The reason for this piece is that there has been a noticeable uptick in critique of his game. For instance, see the comments in the recap of the loss to the Wild where one commenter labeled him a “bust”, another wants to “declare the Butcher experiment over”. It’s not just readers, AATJ writer, Gerard Lionetti is firmly in the “Butcher is a defensive liability” bandwagon too, calling him a “disappointment” with “huge defensive gaffes” that he wouldn’t mind trading, as well as saying he should be sent back to sheltered minutes immediately after his promotion.
Now, I’m not picking on the commenters or on Gerard. This is a fairly common opinion and I agree that Butcher has a tendency to get exposed by elite players since he isn’t big ... or strong ... or fast. But I’m going to make the argument that he’s good anyway. Why? Because, for one reason or another, good things keep happening when he’s on the ice.
Before and After Promotion
These are the stats before and after his promotion to the 2nd pairing with Vatanen using data from Natural Stat Trick.
He’s getting two more minutes a game. As I said in the article linked above, his deployment has gotten only slightly more difficult on a per shift basis, but between the modest increase in difficulty and the substantial increase in volume, there was ample opportunity to disappoint.
Butcher hasn’t. His CF%Rel has actually gone up quite a bit indicating the puck is generally going in the right direction more often when he’s on the ice than not. The SCF%Rel and HDCF%Rel numbers have both stayed the same — both indicating we control about 10% more of the scoring chances with him on the ice than when he’s off. His GF%Rel has taken a hit, but is still comfortably positive. He’s a -2 at 5v5 since the promotion, but the Devils have also been TERRIBLE since his promotion. Hall’s absence is likely relevant there.
In fact, of Devils skaters to have played at least 10 games since his promotion, Butcher leads all Devils in CF%Rel and SCF%Rel. He’s 2nd to Mueller in defender HDCF%Rel and 1st among NJ defenders in GF%Rel. Butcher probably has a lot to learn, particularly in his own end. But he’s handled his promotion the same way he’s handled every responsibility he’s been given so far — absurdly efficiently.
Those numbers that you see for his deployment are “true zone start percentages.” A common retort to Butcher’s fancy stats is that he has an easier job, so I wanted to clarify how much less easy it is than typically portrayed. A common stat to show Usage is ZSR (Zone Start Ratio) which shows the ratio of zone-starts that are in the offensive zone. In a stat like this, Butcher (56%) can seem way more sheltered than Andy Greene (38%). But, as Matt Cane showed 4 years ago, the shifts that begin in the neutral zone or on-the-fly (which are about 70-80% of all shifts) significantly dilute any possibly impact you could see from the deployment on their metrics. Put simply, hockey is too dynamic and fluid to successfully make a bad player seem good by mere sheltering. Will Butcher’s stats aren’t misleading — he’s just good.
What the Eye Test Misses
Below are Butcher’s A3Z percentiles over the last two seasons (10 games tracked 2018-19)
Butcher is above average at preventing people from entering the zone, and NHL-elite at exiting the zone. Both of these (particularly exiting) are very valuable skills, and are fairly good at predicting future GF% as I showed at the RIT Sports Analytics Conference. These, skills are things that will Butcher will personally do about 6-7 times a game each. They are massively more important than reducing his number of disgusting defensive mistakes from 1 every 10-20 games to zero. They impact the overall tilt of the ice consistently and allow the Devils to be better as a team when he’s on the ice. This is likely a contributing factor to him being a top 20 NHL defender in WAR (also obviously the highest Devil).
Butcher was the best Devils defender last year and deservedly got a promotion after being underutilized last year. There is no objective statistical basis for the claim that he has not handled the additional responsibility well. He continues to excel and should continue to get more time until he proves unable to do so.
One of the things people likely think indicates regression is his depleted PP production. The Devils PP was almost entirely dependent on Taylor Hall last year and, frankly, would have succeeded with or without Butcher. To point to his low point totals as evidence of decline is to demonstrate an incomplete knowledge of the anatomy of his value — most of which is due to 5v5 play.
I understand the criticisms of his play in the defensive zone, and if he were in a first pairing position, perhaps that part of his game would get exposed more. But you know what’s better than limiting chances in the defensive zone? Not being in the defensive zone. Butcher does that better than any other defender on this team.
Do you think Butcher is doing well in his new role? Do you think he should get more time or we should dial it back? Do you think he should be a pillar of the rebuild? A trade chip?
Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!