When analyzing the off-season’s Will Butcher Sweepstakes, much of the talk was about opportunity. Butcher, a Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman who was coming off a national title with the Denver Pioneers, wasn’t simply looking for a place to play. He was looking for a place to succeed.
Sure, as a draft choice of the Avalanche, some would suggest he could've had that in Colorado. But instead of inking a deal with the Avalanche, Butcher, 22, wanted to see what was available, where else he might fit. So, when he hit the open market, he got in touch with several teams and started to discuss what his rookie campaign could look like. As those talks wore on, some believed he was bound for the Chicago Blackhawks. Others saw the Pittsburgh Penguins as a potential landing spot. And there were a few rumblings about the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and even the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. But when it came time to make a decision, a few flicks of the wrist made Butcher a New Jersey Devil. And, once again, opportunity was the operative word.
Speaking following his signing, Butcher pointed to a few reasons why he signed in New Jersey. He mentioned mentorship from Andy Greene. He talked about the chance to play with some exceptionally talented forwards. And he even talked about the passion for the game he shared with New Jersey coach John Hynes and GM Ray Shero. But the most intriguing selling point Butcher noted was that the Devils would keep his best interest in mind. Said Butcher: “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.”
And, through five games, it appears as though Butcher couldn’t have made a better decision.
Even if it’s not always true, it’s generally accepted the learning curve for young NHL defensemen is harder than almost any position, and with reason. Freshman rearguards are up against forwards who are bigger, faster, stronger and do everything with a greater level of precision than any opponents they’ve faced along the way to the big leagues. But there are ways for coaches to combat that by sheltering younger rearguards, put them against weaker competition or pair them with defenders who can carry some of the weight.
In the first regard, Hynes has done a near-perfect job managing Butcher’s minutes. In terms of zone starts, Butcher has only been forced to start 10 5-on-5 shifts in the Devils’ zone, with the other 39 starts coming in either the neutral or offensive zone. That has allowed Butcher to start the vast majority of his shifts with New Jersey in an attacking position. When it comes to competition, Hynes has also taken care of Butcher, if you will, by ensuring he’s not out against the opponents’ top line on a consistent basis. In fact, Butcher has the lowest 5-on-5 quality of competition of all Devils rearguards to skate at least 50 even-strength minutes this season. And as for giving Butcher a safety net, Hynes has attempted to do so by playing the rookie alongside each of Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout and John Moore, not to mention calling Butcher’s number when Marcus Johansson, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt are skating up front.
But the best thing Hynes has done with Butcher, and the way in which the Devils coach has best played to the rookie’s strengths, is by actually limiting his even-strength minutes altogether. Butcher has averaged 11:38 per outing at evens through the early part of the campaign and his 103 shifts through five games, little more than 20 per contest, are 24 fewer than Damon Severson’s 127, which are the next-fewest by any defender to play in all five of New Jersey’s contests. To some it may seem that limiting Butcher in such a way flies in the face of the suggestion that Butcher is getting this great opportunity with the Devils, but looking only at even-strength play ignores the fact that no defenseman is seeing as much time with the extra man.
Through five games, Butcher is averaging 4:04 on the power play, the 15th-most of all defensemen in the NHL, and has thus played more than a quarter of his professional ice time on the man advantage at this early stage of his career. One has to imagine this is exactly what Butcher was talking about when he said he wanted to avoid being thrown into the fire. He’s taking what are, defensively speaking, low-risk minutes while getting the chance to put points on the board. There’s no better usage for a defenseman whose offensive ability is his calling card. Of course, such deployment would be all for naught if Butcher wasn’t producing, but that certainly hasn’t been the case. Butcher has amassed eight points through five games, all assists, en route to setting an NHL record. He’s the first rookie defenseman in league history to put up eight points and eight assists in his first five games.
And it’s all been possible because New Jersey, with Hynes pulling the strings, has given Butcher exactly what he was looking for: opportunity and the best possible chance at success.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)