As surprising as it is to have a gangly rookie Tyler Myers currently setting the time-on-ice pace for the Sabres, the fact 23-year-old Chris Butler is the only other 20-minute player on the team is an equal eye-opener.
Beset by injuries to more experienced defenders such as Craig Rivet and Andrej Sekera, the Sabres have had to plug in some fresh faces to carry the load. And given how the team sits atop the Northeast Division with a 15-7-2 record, the contributions from guys like Butler have certainly helped get this team back to its winning ways after missing the playoffs last season.
A graduate of the United States League’s Sioux City Musketeers and the NCAA Denver Pioneers, Butler quickly found his way to the NHL after tossing up the mortarboard, spending just 27 games in the American League before getting the call.
“Last year I got an idea of what things were going to be like and luckily for myself there were a lot of injuries just as I came up, so I basically got forced into playing bigger minutes early on than I would have as a call-up,” Butler explained. “I got myself acquitted and comfortable maybe 15 or 20 games into my call-up and then had a good talk with the coaching staff at the end of the year, just kind of letting me know to make sure I had a good summer of training because I was going to play a bit bigger of a role this year.”
With 21:43 of average ice time, Butler is playing five more minutes per game than last season. And while that number has certainly been pushed upwards because of the injury bug circulating through the Buffalo dressing room, Butler plays a sound, smart defensive game you can’t appreciate by simply looking at the scoresheet.
It’s fitting Butler learned from, and attributes much of his early success to, another unassuming, reliable minute-muncher-turned-coach who patrolled NHL bluelines for nearly two decades.
“One of the real nice things was having Eric Weinrich,” Butler said of his time in the AHL. “It’s just the little subtle things you can learn from a guy who’s played 1,000-plus games. He teaches you things that a lot of people who just watch the game don’t really understand. He did a good job of making me a better partner for my partner when I was out there. Breakout passes, looking for different options, he’s been a huge help for me so far in my career.”
Butler still keeps in touch with his mentor, who is currently the assistant coach for Buffalo’s affiliate in Portland, through congratulatory text messages and visits when the Pirates play nearby. But after his jump to the NHL, a couple other veterans – Teppo Numminen and Craig Rivet – helped Butler acclimatize himself to the league. Like Butler, neither play with a particular show of flash, but the St. Louis native noted that what he picked up from them was their smart, responsible positional plays that always allow them to make an impact.
“Teppo had an outstanding career and he did a good job of making me feel comfortable when I was out there, talking to me,” Butler noted. “He’s such a smart player. If you watch the way he plays he makes few mistakes, passes are dead-on, he’s always in the right spot, always taking away a passing lane. And then Craig Rivet took me under his wing at the end of last year.”
With the towering Myers making waves with his noticeable two-way play and dominating frame, Butler will never be the money-making face of the defense corps, but if he can continue to munch big-time minutes, learn the subtle intricacies of his position and just play the smart, safe defensive game he’s dedicated himself to, he will be a valuable, unassuming piece of the puzzle in Buffalo.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays.
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