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Will Butcher: The Future or the Past?

Will Butcher’s statistical footprint makes for a confusing player assessment. How can we make sense of it in order to decide what his future with the team will be?

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Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In 2018, the Devils were an encouraging upstart team with a slew of effective rookies, an MVP, and a bright future. One of those rookies, Will Butcher, had all the hallmarks of a potential future top defender. He was a Hobey Baker award-winning defender (best D-man in the NCAA), was highly efficient in his limited role as a rookie, earned a spot on the first powerplay unit, and led all rookie defenders in scoring. He was a highly-touted prospect that came in and passed his entrance exam with flying colors.

The luster on that rookie defender scoring title has worn off over the past two years, which may explain why he received just a 3-year contract extension as opposed to a longer one from Ray Shero. After being a clear bottom-pair player in his first season, his TOI was ramped up by about 3 minutes a game from 16 minutes to 19. The staff, clearly not particularly impressed by this performance, dialed back those minutes in 2020 before stabilizing at around 18 — about average for a 2nd pairing defender.

Given what a mess this past season, was, it’s important to remember what things looked like heading in, and what the full body of data on Butcher shows, not just the most recent information. Eventually a decision is going to need to be made on whether or not he is part of this team’s long-term future. And the sooner the better to assess that probability, because there’s a very real chance we end up sellers again next season, and if we do, we need to figure out what he’s worth to us, and what he’s worth to others.

Butcher’s Career Value

If, at some point in the past 3 seasons, you asked an analytically-inclined hockey fan who the best Devils defenceman is, they’d likely respond “Butcher, and it's not close”. And in looking at value metrics, it becomes quickly obvious why. In terms of GAR (goals above replacement), here are the cumulative values of all Devils defenders in the past 3 seasons.

That is a runaway victory for Butcher as the most valuable Devils defender since he joined the team. An important note, here, is that some prefer xGAR to GAR for defender analysis. This note is made less important by the fact that Butcher is 1st in that too (though Severson is a close 2nd), but it’s worth being made aware of.

Some may be a bit taken aback by the notion that Butcher, who has been clearly playing a bottom 4 role during this 3-year span, could be the most valuable defender on the team. One might be tempted to simply attribute the position to the ineptitude of the rest of the team. Surely, in a vacuum, when compared to the rest of the NHL, Butcher isn’t a top pairing defender, right?

Here are his GAR-comparables over the past 3 seasons.

Butcher’s “comparable” list is basically the all-star team. In fact, the only defender that exceeded the top end of this chart image was Ryan Ellis. Also interesting to note, is the breakdown of his value. He provides the least value on this list in drawing penalties, but the most value on taking penalties. This is a small portion of his total value, but it offers a microcosm of what he’s doing to contribute positively to his team. The reason he doesn’t draw penalties is because he’s not fast or strong and so he rarely can put opponents into athletically uncomfortable positions. But the reason he doesn’t take many is because he’s smart and disciplined, so is rarely caught in that position himself. More broadly: his hockey IQ is what makes him special, and his physical deficiencies are what make him fail the eye test. The penalty category may seem too abstract to some, so let’s look at a fairly simple manifestation of Buther’s discipline.

Will Butcher has played 3808 minutes in the past 3 seasons. In that time, he has received 32 penalty minutes. He is tagged for a minor penalty 0.15 times per hour — that’s the 2nd least among all NHL defenders (1000+ minutes) behind only Marc-Edouard Vlasic and comes out to about 1 penalty every 20 games or so. So, Will Butcher is good at keeping the game at 5v5 — this is uniquely beneficial to him given that his 5v5 impacts are so strong. Over his career, according to RAPM which measures the impact a player has on shots, goals and expected goals after accounting for context and usage, Butcher is the 30th most impactful defender in the NHL on expected goal differential per hour — just behind Hedman, Karlsson, and Klingberg.

A third year player that’s already sharing company of the best blueliners alive? It sounds like this kid could be the future of our back end no? Well, unfortunately, it’s not quite that straight forward.

Butcher’s Perplexing Career Arc

It’s good to know that his career impacts are positive. But he was a little older than the average rookie, and it’s very possible he’s a different player than he was 4 years ago. In order to get an accurate projection, we need to give recent events a little more attention. Below is the map of Butcher’s shot impacts each year via Hockeyviz. Red means that a team attempted more shots than expected from that area, blue means fewer (top is offense, bottom is defence). The number on each graph is the percent of expected goals more/less than anticipated.

As you can see, the positive impact that we’ve seen from Butcher has decreased each season. His net impact was +8.5 the first season, +6.5 last season, and +3.3 this season. While he’s still a positive-impact player, the impact has appeared on its way down, not up. Give his first-season performance, he should be a top pairing defender by now, but when he’s been given additional opportunities, he’s not succeeded. And, in looking at microstats, it appears that he’s seeing decreased success in two key areas: shot assists and zone exits. The right-most image below is this season.

Given that passing is a skill that ages better than shooting, it would be unfortunate (though, not entirely unlikely) to learn that he’s already on the back-end of his career trajectory. Given that players like him typically age better than this, and given that his previous two years were quite strong, one other possible explanation could be that this past season just offered too much additional responsibility. This doesn’t seem to hold water given that his microstats took the biggest tumble in his 3rd season, even though his toughest workload was actually his 2nd season. But, given his consistently decreasing performance, and his eventual need for an extension, it’s worth knowing if he can handle extra responsibility. There are two ways I could see testing this. One with regards to the amount of time he was on the ice in games to see if fatigue is a problem. The other is to investigate his performance based on competition level to see if difficulty is a problem.

Butcher’s Performance with Additional Responsibility

Using data from NaturalStatTrick game logs, I binned Butcher’s 5v5 (score and venue adjusted) performance into two categories — games in which he’s played more than 17:30 (roughly his average), and games in which he played less than that. The results are interesting.

In games where he’s been given more ice time, his goal results have been demonstrably worse — he goes from a +0.84 goal differential per hour to a -0.44, falling off in both offense (0.76 worse) and defense (0.52 worse) in the process. Looking at only goal results, it’s easy to see why the conclusion of the coaching staff over the past 3 seasons is that Butcher can’t be given top-pairing minutes. But, when we look at the expected goal results, we get an entirely different picture. In light-workload games, Butcher was a +0.43 expected goal differential per hour, and in heavy-workload games, he was a +0.33 differential. That’s still technically worse, but clearly within the margin of error and still positive results in both scenarios, despite playing on a team that’s been pretty bad for the majority of that time. His defense, in fact, was actually slightly better in the heavy workload games.

Does this prove anything definitively? No. There is still something to the difference in offense according to xG, and skaters can influence the GF-xGF differential more than the defensive equivalent, so there is certainly cause for investigation. But nothing close to the perception I think many have of being utterly overwhelmed when given a bigger role.

So maybe it’s not how much he played, but who he played against. Over at PuckIQ, they bin performance of each player based on the type of competition — Elite, Middle, and Gritensity (low) in descending order of difficulty. We see a similar phenomenon occurring in QoC (quality of competition) as we did with workload. Here is the performance of Devils defenders over the past 3 seasons with at least 500 minutes against Elite competition. The horizontal axis is GF%, the vertical is percent of available time on ice the player received.

The following statements are the clear takeaways that one should have from the graph: John Moore got good results, P.K. Subban got bad ones, and everyone else is pretty similar but Green used heavily, and Butcher used lightly. Technically speaking, Butcher was 2nd worst on the team, though, only over Subban who had the bad luck of being on the team for only our very bad year. So this looks pretty bad for Will. But, as I said above, this shakes out as another instance of goals being potentially misleading. In this graph the horizontal axis is now DFF% (Dangerous Fenwick ratio — basically scoring chances).

When we look at DFF%, Butcher shows up as the runaway most effective defender on the team. He is a full 3 percentage points ahead of the next most effective Devils defender in terms of scoring chance ratio against elite competition. He shows as the best offensive defender and a slightly below-average defensive one.

The conclusion here is that there is ample evidence that the goal results indicate Butcher falling on hard times when being given more responsibility in the form of additional ice time or more difficult competition. There is substantially less evidence that this trend is likely to continue moving forward due to his significantly stronger performance in peripheral metrics.

Summary and Thoughts

Will Butcher’s full scope of performance over his first 3 seasons depicts him as the unquestionable most efficient Devils defender during that time. Yet, the assessment of his future remains muddied by his paradoxical results. He doesn’t appear to be aging well, despite being exactly the type of player who should age well; he has gotten poor results when heavily used, despite putting his team in good situations; and he’s gotten mediocre results against good competition, despite being the best defender on the team at winning the scoring chance ratio against them.

My personal inclination is to give him a pass on last years results because of what a mess they were. Over the first two seasons, he was one of the most analytically-encouraging young defenders in the NHL. I think we should give that more weight heading into next year. I also think that what has transpired on the ice when he is out there against good competition seems highly suspect. I’m not saying he’s blameless in the disparity between the goals and the chances, but it seems like that gap is more likely than not to close and at least land somewhere between what each of the two metrics would indicate.

I, therefore, would like to give him more responsibility at 5v5. He should be one of our top 4 defenders night-in/night-out and should probably get tried on the top pair for enough time to get an adequate sample size of his performance in it. All told, it should add up to around 19-21 minutes per game depending on special teams usage. It goes without saying, that I don’t believe we should look to trade him given this assessment. Someone who has stronger peripheral metrics than realized ones is likely to have lower market value than actual value. Whether or not he should ultimately be re-signed long-term, well, that depends on the results of these experiments. But, for now, he’s a clear keeper.

What do you think of Butcher? Do you think his physical deficiencies cap his upside? Do you think his analytical performance warrants additional opportunity? Do you think he’ll succeed if given a bigger chance? Do you think he’s pair-dependent — requiring a defensively-responsible counterpart (like rookie partner, Ben Lovejoy) in order to succeed? Leave your thoughts on these questions or on anything else pertaining to Butcher in the comments below. Thanks for reading!