This time last year, 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey became a free agent, setting off a few flurried days of speculation before the Harvard product signed a two-year deal to become a New York Ranger. And on the one-year anniversary of Vesey’s official free agency, we’re set to begin the process all over again, but this time with 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher.
Originally drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round, 123rd overall, in 2013, Butcher has increased his stock over the past few seasons with standout performances for the NCAA’s Denver Pioneers. His real breakout year came in the 2015-16 campaign, when Butcher, a defenseman, struck for nine goals and 32 points in 39 games, but he bested that point total this past season, notching seven goals and 37 points in 43 outings en route to the Hobey, NCHC Player of the Year nod and a national championship.
While he’s just the type of player the Avalanche, who have only three experienced NHL defensemen under contract, would want to bring into the lineup to bulk up their blueline, Butcher has decided to go the free agency route. And, suffice to say Butcher, like Vesey, is going to have more than his fair share of suitors.
As with any college free agent, it’s difficult to project how Butcher’s ability will translate to the NHL in the immediate, but it’s been evident over the past two seasons that Butcher has, at the very least, the offensive ability to contribute to a team’s power play at the big league level. But the hope is his skill can go beyond that and, with some careful development, he could turn into a second- or possibly even top-pairing rearguard down the line. And with that kind of potential, it’s no wonder teams are going to come knocking as Butcher hits the open market.
Which teams are going to be at the forefront of discussions, though, and which franchise will Butcher view as a fit at this stage of his career?
For the past few seasons, the Sabres have been in the Eastern Conference basement, but that’s about to change. Jack Eichel appeared to be breaking out when he returned from injury this past season, scoring at nearly a point per game pace over the final 61 games. And with Eichel developing, the Sabres are set to have an awesome one-two punch with Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly. Add in scorers like Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart, the promise of prospects Alexander Nylander and Rasmus Asplund and the overall prospect depth up front and Buffalo is certainly a team to watch in the next few years.
So, if he signed in Buffalo, Butcher might be able to get in on the ground floor. And the good news for Butcher is that if the Sabres are lacking prospect depth anywhere, it’s on defense. Rasmus Ristolainen had a starring role in Buffalo this past season. Brendan Guhle has definite upside. Beyond that, the bluechip prospects on the back end are few and far between.
If the Sabres want to get younger on defense in the future, adding someone such as Butcher is the way to go. And if Butcher wants to grow with a team that has potential to consistently compete, it might be difficult to overlook Buffalo.
Proximity is key when it comes to the Blackhawks. Butcher would be close to home were he to sign in Chicago. A native of Sun Prairie, Wisc., Butcher’s hometown would be a scant three-hour drive away from his new NHL home. It’s hard to pass that up and certainly would give Butcher at least some level of familiarity when it comes to his new locale.
But there’s more than proximity at play. Think about it from a development standpoint. In Chicago, Butcher would have the opportunity to learn under the watchful eye of a staff that has done a great job at developing NHL talent and on ice he’d have the chance to watch the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and, most importantly, Duncan Keith up close and personal. Butcher could learn a lot from Keith, too. Keith isn’t exactly the biggest defender — he stands 6-foot-1, 198 pounds — but he uses his body well and thinks the game as well as anyone. With the chance to be guided by a two-time Norris Trophy winner potentially presenting itself, it might be hard for Butcher to look the other way.
One last note, too: Chicago isn’t deep on top-flight defensive prospects. If Butcher comes in and plays well, a top-four NHL job could be available this season or next.
In making a splash in the off-season and acquiring Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canadiens had to part ways with top defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev. That thinned out Montreal’s futures on defense. The Canadiens still have Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete in the system and went blueline heavy in the past draft, selecting four rearguards with their seven selections, but they could use a young defender to help replenish what was lost with Sergachev. Montreal would do well to get some young blood on the back end, too. Brandon Davidson, 25, projects to be the youngest defenseman on the roster this coming season, and the average age of the remaining defenders is 31.
That’s where Butcher comes in. He could almost certainly take a bottom pairing role as soon as this season and could be one year away from earning a second pairing role if all goes well. He may not have the pure offensive upside of someone like Sergachev, but Butcher has shown a scoring touch and would get the chance to crack the lineup if the Canadiens sought to add youth to the blueline in the near future.
New Jersey Devils
In order to bulk up on offense and bring in Taylor Hall last summer, the Devils sacrificed on the blueline, shipping Adam Larsson to the Edmonton Oilers. That has left the New Jersey defense corps as thin as any in the NHL and if there’s any team that should be all-in on trying to beef up their defensive prospects, it’s the Devils. Butcher would be the perfect addition, too, and you can see what might interest Butcher when it comes to signing in New Jersey.
If Butcher signed with the Devils, he would have the opportunity to crack the lineup on a full-time basis as early as this coming campaign. That has to be enticing, too. New Jersey has little, and we mean very, very little, in the way of top defensemen right now, and that could mean that beyond getting into the lineup, Butcher also gets halfway decent minutes. Going from the NCAA to the second pairing on an NHL squad might be a tough jump, but it might be the chance Butcher wants.
He could also be part of the reshaping of the defense in New Jersey. The Devils need to start building something and if Butcher catches on as a top-quality NHL blueliner, there’s potential to take a huge role and be the cornerstone of the defense.
Sometimes the rich get richer, and the Penguins, coming off of consecutive Stanley Cups, will certainly be in on Butcher. It would be a wise move for Pittsburgh, too, because with the breadth of talent up front and a few enticing forward prospects on the way, the one area the Penguins are hurting for prospect depth is the blueline. Beyond Derrick Pouliot, who still hasn’t made the full-time jump, there aren’t many rearguards in the Penguins’ system who could jump into the lineup right now.
Butcher, though, might be able to make the cut, especially if the injury bug decides to take a chomp out of Pittsburgh once again. When the blueline was thin during the post-season, the Penguins could have used a capable hand like Butcher.
And why wouldn’t Butcher want to join the Penguins? Like Chicago, he’d have a chance to play with some of the world’s best players, and Pittsburgh is almost guaranteed to remain in the playoff and Stanley Cup picture as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain on the roster. Having an opportunity to compete for a title has to be intriguing, and maybe even more so if it can come early in his career.
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