The Will Butcher watch has ended. The reigning Hobey Baker winner and NCAA national champion with the University of Denver Pioneers chose a new team over the weekend after leaving the Colorado Avalanche, the organization who drafted him, and becoming a free agent Aug. 15.
In Butcher, the Devils hope they’ve found their next Brian Rafalski. Like Rafalski, Butcher is an undersized but highly intelligent puck-moving defenseman who excelled in the college ranks. Butcher, 22, narrowed his choices down to the Devils, Vegas Golden Knights, Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings. So why did he pick New Jersey? He spoke on a media conference call Monday, with THN listening in, and explained his reasoning. It came down to three factors:
1. Butcher is a huge fan of Devils coach John Hynes
The single most influential factor in Butcher’s decision was a dynamite meet-up with Hynes and Devils GM Ray Shero. Butcher sensed instant chemistry, less because of Hynes’ ties to USA Hockey but more because Hynes came up coaching in the NCAA. Butcher sees a similarity between Hynes’ system and the way the Denver Pioneers deployed their players. Butcher played a simple, quick, efficient game there, moving pucks rapidly to his forwards, and expects Hynes will deploy him similarly.
“The guy knows the game and has a passion for the game,” Butcher said. “I would like to say I have a passion for the game. That was more a selling point, the sense that I related so well to (Hynes and Shero). If felt like a good fit for me to be with those guys.”
Hynes singled out Butcher for his deceptive ability on the power play, and Butcher thinks Hynes can help him hone it further, developing more fakes and feints to get shots through or create passing lanes to set up forwards. Butcher believes he’s best set up to get to the NHL with the guidance of someone like Hynes.
“I think my game is NHL ready,” Butcher said. “There’s always stuff to learn and pick up, and that’s mostly the reason I chose New Jersey. I felt with coach Hynes, with development and how they cater to the guys and help them get ready for the NHL games…certain things from taking repetitions to going out one day and just getting puck touches, as he talked about…it was very appealing to me to talk about that kind of stuff. They take a younger guy like me, who’s 22 years old, first time in the NHL, and if I’m fortunate enough to make the big team, they’re going to help me and put me in a place to succeed rather than throw me into the fire. Because it’s the best league in the world.”
2. An ideal mentor in Andy Greene
Asked which players are most similar to him, Butcher first played it modest and insisted, with a laugh, “I wouldn’t say anybody is like me. It’s more me like them, know what I mean?” Then he rhymed off Duncan Keith, Torey Krug and Tobias Enstrom. None is a behemoth and each moves the puck with savvy. The other guy Butcher always paid attention to: Devils captain Andy Greene. Maybe the Rafalski comparison wasn’t spot on and Greene is even more accurate. Butcher is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, and Greene is 5-foot-11 and 190. Greene also played college hockey, is also a left shot and also plays a simple, heady, well-rounded style. He’s the perfect role model for Butcher.
“He’d be a great mentor to me, because he does everything,” Butcher said. “He penalty kills, he can play the power play, all situations. He’s a smart player, not necessarily the biggest guy, but he uses his ability to play well.”
3. (A few) skilled forwards to target with passes
Butcher and agent Brian Bartlett spent a lot of time studying depth charts before making a decision. The Devils were a logical choice given the position Butcher plays, because they have one of the league’s weaker bluelines and thus offer one of the easier paths to earning an NHL role. When I asked Butcher specifically about that, he said the bigger factor when he looked at the Devils lineup was that he saw some forwards with whom he could develop chemistry. He may be overly optimistic, as the Devils don’t have a bursting stable of elite young scoring talents, but they have a few exciting forwards. He singled out 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique as players he feels he can worth well with.
“If I had that opportunity, I’d learn from the older guys but also be able to play with the younger guys who I can get the puck to and play a fast, up-tempo game,” Butcher said. “That caters to the kind of game I play. That combination, everything they have going in the right direction in New Jersey, was very appealing to me.”