In the final morning of July 2019, the New Jersey Devils signed their third and final restricted free agent that filed for arbitration. The team announced that they have re-signed defenseman Will Butcher to a three-season contract worth $11.2 million. Butcher and the Devils were scheduled to go to arbitration on August 2. That will not happen.
Butcher received a substantial raise with his contract. He just completed his two-season entry level contract which was for the maximum salary of $925,000 per CapFriendly. His new deal will have him earn $3.5 million in 2019-20, $3.6 million in 2020-21, and $4.1 million in 2021-22. This all results in an annoying average accrued value of $3,733,333.33. Expect his cap hit to just be $3.73 million. As Butcher will be 27 by the time the contract ends, he will become an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
I think this is a very reasonable deal that Butcher and the Devils agreed upon. Let’s go over why.
What Butcher Did Last Season
CJ wrote in more detail about what Butcher’s (and Zacha’s) next contracts should be back in April. CJ thought that he should receive a deal like what Damon Severson has: six years at a $4.2 million cap hit. While Butcher actually received less in both term and money, CJ made a pretty good case.
He referenced multiple posts to how well Butcher performed. For example, Butcher helped push the play forward in average to lower levels of competition on a team that lacked people to help push the play forward at all. As the 2018-19 season wore down, Butcher received more responsibilities and responded well to the increases in minutes and competition. Through the All-Three Zone project data by Corey Sznajder, CJ pointed out how well Butcher performed when it came to setting up shots, making zone exits with possession, making zone exits at all, and breaking up incoming attackers. Good defensemen accomplish those things despite their perceived faults (size, not being fast).
I will add to that. According to the 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick, Butcher was a standout among the other regular defensemen on New Jersey last season. No Devil defender broke 50% Corsi for percentage, but Butcher was the only one who was close at 49.87 CF%. In terms of shots for percentage, three Devils defenders just cracked 50% - and Butcher was the leader at 50.64%. For those who prefer scoring chance for percentages, Butcher shined there as well. For all scoring chances, Butcher led the blueline at 52%. For high-danger chances, Butcher led again with a staggering 55.38%. The expected goals model found that Butcher’s common partner, Ben Lovejoy, had a slightly better expected goals for percentage than Butcher. But who had the superior expected goals against per 60 rate, a rate that models the rate of how many goals should there be based on what happened on the ice when that player was there? Butcher at 2.14 xGA/60. The 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats further back up CJ’s argument from April: Butcher has been an effective defenseman.
Let us not ignore the production either. After a 44-point rookie season, Butcher still managed to put up four goals, 26 assists, and 108 shots on a bad 2018-19 Devils team. Fourteen of those thirty points were on the power play; thus, his ratio of even-strength points to total points improved a bit from 0.47 to 0.53. Thirty points for a defenseman is nothing to sneeze at: only 53 defenders (out of 326) had at least 31 points last season. Had Butcher picked up an extra point here or there, then he would have repeated being in the top-50 in scoring at his position for a second straight season. My point is that Butcher was still productive despite all of the struggles the Devils endured last season.
Yes, Butcher’s 2017-18 season was a better season. 2017-18 was just about a better season for all of the Devils. Yet, Butcher was arguably the best defenseman the Devils had last season. He was due for a raise and he fully earned it. I would like to think the next three seasons should open up more eyes as to how good he can really be. On a healthier, more talented squad, Butcher can stay just as effective on defense and will likely produce even more at both even strength and on the power play. We all should be excited by that possibility.
What’s Next for Will Butcher?
He may not be the Andy Greene replacement the team really does need (and soon), but he has proven to be an excellent fit as the team’s second-pairing left-sided defenseman. That is where he ended up last season and it is where he should line up in this coming season. His contract even reflects that. Butcher received a large raise and he is paid more than appropriately for his position. It could be argued he could end up being underpaid given his potential contributions at even strength and on the power play. After all, we live in a world where Neal Pionk received $3 million for two seasons from Winnipeg despite being seemingly bad.
Butcher will have competition for the power play, however. Actually, this has been known for over a month. The Devils made a blockbuster deal at the 2019 NHL Draft and acquired P.K. Subban. Subban is not just a Big Name, the Face of the League, and a right-sided defenseman. He is also a power play powerhouse. Since 2009-10 at NHL.com, Subban has put up 45 goals, 133 assists, and 555 shots on the man advantage in 658 games for a total of 178 points. Only four defensemen in that time frame put up more than 178 points and only two put up more than 555 shots. Subban has been a cannon and a constant threat on power plays. Butcher was initially plugged into the first power play unit in 2017-18 as it did not take long in camp to show the coaches he can handle a power play. Now, there is someone with far more credentials, experience, and even skill than Butcher when it comes to the power play. Assuming the Devils stick to the same formations for the power play - something I think they should re-think a bit - Butcher is going to have to either make an amazing case to take some shifts in place of Subban or make the most of it on the second unit. I think he should prepare for the second unit as it stands. And he would be wise to perform well as Severson or Vatanen could easily step in case he does not.
All the same, Butcher is pretty much set to be a part of the Devils’ top-four on defense. He has a top-four worthy contract. Provided he gets consistent power play time that succeeds enough, then Butcher will likely be involved in its success - which will further justify the deal he received this morning.
What Does This Allow the Devils to Do Now & Further Contract Discussion
The Devils just have one more player to re-sign: Pavel Zacha. Zacha was qualified as a restricted free agent. He was and is not arbitration eligible, so there is no rush to get anything done. I would like to think they will have something agreed upon before training camp begins so the young forward does not miss out on any time there.
According to CapFriendly, the Devils now have about $8.7 million in cap space. That is more than enough money to re-sign Zacha. After acquiring and signing Gusev this week, the Zacha signing may be the last move to make before preseason becomes imminent. There may be a professional try-out contract or two. (Quick aside: Funny as it would be, would there even be room for Kevin Shattenkirk on a PTO on a team with Subban, Severson, Vatanen, and Carrick? I think not.) I would prefer the Devils to keep $5-6 million in space. This will give them more than enough flexibility to call up players from Binghamton as needed. Should something not work well early on in the season, then they have cap room to make a trade or two. Should the season go well and the Devils want to add a “big piece” by the trade deadline, then the cap space will allow them to do that as well. Having witnessed a Devils team that was really up against the cap ceiling, I am more than comfortable than having some space available.
As it stands, the Devils still maintain a lot of cap flexibility with today’s signing. Butcher is one of six Devils signed for the 2021-22 season, joining Cory Schneider (expiring, UFA), Subban (expiring, UFA), Jack Hughes (expiring ELC, RFA), Miles Wood (expiring, RFA), and Severson (signed through 2022-23). They will need to utilize it very soon as Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and MacKenzie Blackwood are all eligible for extensions and will need new contracts next Summer. Especially Hall, who is set to become an UFA on July 1, 2020. The Hall and Hischier contracts alone could end up being very expensive; so whatever flexibility they can establish now to fit them in is a plus.
While I can understand some Devils fans looking at what Sam Girard received in Colorado and wished the Devils would have given Butcher a deal like that one or something that would have went into his UFA years, I think the smarter play was to give Butcher a deal like this one. Every contract matters in a hard cap, and that also means having options to move on or move it. While the Devils could have easily afforded to give Butcher more money now for a longer term, then that could create more tension when it comes to cramming in future contracts. The salary cap did not go up as high as some hoped in 2019 and there is no guarantee it will in future years, especially as the CBA is set to expire after 2021-22. Butcher’s contract may result in a more expensive re-signing process in 2022, but the state of the team, the cap, and even Butcher will be different. I would rather take the risk than have Butcher on the books for five or six seasons as a more unmovable piece. You may feel differently; I understand it. It is just how I see it.
As indicated by the headline, I really do think this was a very reasonable contract for Butcher and the Devils. Butcher received a large raise and will be able to hit the market in three seasons if he so chooses. The Devils will get three more of his “prime” seasons and pay him at a very good rate for the kind of position he plays. Butcher was quite good on a bad Devils team last season so I expect him to look better on what should be a better Devils team. I question where he will fit in on the power play, but that is for the coaches to figure out.
Are you happy with this new contract for Butcher? Do you like it or do you not like it? Do you wish it was for longer than three seasons and, if so, how much more would you have offered for him to take a longer deal? What do you think of Butcher as a player? When do you think we’ll learn about Zacha’s new deal? Please let me know your answers and other thoughts about Butcher and his new deal in the comments. Thank you for reading.