Senators Watch: Butler a worthy free agent gamble

The Ottawa Senators are undoubtedly aware it’s possible to find quality NHL players among the graduating class in U.S. college hockey. Current Senators Ryan Shannon, Andy Sutton and Jesse Winchester all signed as undrafted free agents after four years of college hockey, as did former Senator and Kanata, Ont., native Todd White.

It is with visions of that kind of success that the Senators signed 22-year-old right winger Bobby Butler from the University of New Hampshire earlier this week. Butler skated with the Senators for their morning skate prior to Tuesday night’s game in Washington, but wasn’t in the lineup. He could, however, see his first NHL action Thursday night when the Sens host the Carolina Hurricanes.

But before anyone gets too excited about the prospects of Butler becoming a star, it would be wise to note that the number of college free agents who end up playing regularly in the NHL is dwarfed by the number of players who never make a mark. When it comes to college free agents, some teams have the philosophy that you sign as many as you can and hope one turns out.

But there certainly are exceptions to the rule. Martin St-Louis is the poster child for college free agents. He played four years at the University of Vermont before signing as a free agent with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the defunct International League in 1997-98. From there, he signed an NHL contract with the Calgary Flames and bounced around the minors for a couple of seasons before signing and establishing himself with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the age of 25. It should be noted the Flames put St-Louis on waivers not once, but twice, and had no takers.

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Current NHLers such as Dan Boyle, Andy McDonald, Rene Bourque, John Madden and Chris Kunitz also slugged it out for four years in college before making it as late bloomers to the NHL, so it certainly can be done.

If Butler turns out to follow in their path, the Senators will be the beneficiaries and stand to reap the benefits for years. If not, there is little risk on the Senators part, since Butler is signed only through the rest of this season and next before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

And they should be able to find out at a fairly reasonable price, relatively speaking. Should he stay with the NHL team the rest of this year, he’ll make $140,000 – $90,000 in signing bonus and just more than $50,000 prorated on a yearly salary of $720,000. Should he play in the NHL next season, it will cost the Senators $90,000 in signing bonus and $720,000 in salary. But if he plays in the minors, he’ll receive his signing bonus and a salary of only about $65,000.

This article also appeared in the Ottawa Metro newspaper.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.

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