On Will Butcher signing with the Devils and the debate we’re still having about NCAA UFAs for some reason

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Will Butcher, the most coveted in a class of former collegiate players who let their own draft rights lapse or were not signed by their drafting team, has signed a two-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. The Hobey Baker winner took advantage of the CBA rule (not a loophole) that allows players to become UFAs if they do not sign with their drafting team by the fourth June 1 following their draft year.

Butcher’s final two collegiate seasons were brilliant for the Denver Pioneers, with a senior season for the ages. The Sun Prairie, Wisc., native put up a career-best 37 points in 42 games while captaining DU to the national championship and collecting the Hobey.

Drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche coming out of the National Team Development Program in 2013, Butcher’s first two seasons in college were not necessarily awe-inspiring. They certainly weren’t bad, but he had fair amount of pedigree coming into the NCAA. He made the World U18 Championship as an underager in 2012 — playing on a blue line with the likes of Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei on what was the most dominant D corps I’d ever seen in that tournament. Butcher also had a strong showing in his under-18 season at the NTDP, on a D corps that includes new Devils teammate Steven Santini. But he sort of blended in at Denver as a freshman and sophomore and had a so-so showing at the 2014 World Junior Championship.  The important thing to note is that Butcher showed tremendous growth over his four years at DU, culminating with him rounding out into one of the best blueliners in the NCAA and eventually the Hobey Baker as the best player overall.

New_Jersey_Devils_logo.svgThe Devils are adding some much-needed depth on defense, an area that hasn’t been as adequately addressed in the rebuild as the forward group has with draftees like Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod and most recent first-overall pick Nico Hischier. The 22-year-old could conceivably make the opening night roster, but one would think the Devils aren’t going to rush him if they don’t think he’s ready.

In the best-case scenario, at least in the short-term, Butcher provides a low-pairing option to aid in puck-possession and could potentially see some power-play time right away in the NHL. Longer-term, there’s moderate top-four potential due to his poise with the puck, vision and overall intelligence. Butcher absolutely controlled games from the blue line the last two years in ways most college defensemen cannot. It doesn’t always translate, but I think Butcher has been generally underestimated during this free agency period based on what I’ve read and comments I’ve seen.

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The many challenges of building the 2018 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team roster

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It was never going to be easy. No one would have argued that, given the NHL’s decision to keep players out of the 2018 Olympics. But building the 2018 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team roster is going to be far more challenging than anyone is willing to let on.

That’s not to say that USA Hockey can’t put together a competitive roster, but putting a roster together is far from the only hurdle they’ll face in the lofty quest to secure a medal of any color. There are obviously also concerns about the opposition in the actual tournament, the unpredictable nature of short tournaments in general and other on-ice things. But most of all, the challenge of building the 2018 men’s Olympic team comes down to logistics.

As I noted in a recent post, USA Hockey took a really good first step in building a staff that is uniquely qualified to lead this team. I think they have the right people in place. There is one issue, however. For most of the staff, preparing for the Olympics is not their first and only job. Even general manager Jim Johannson will have other responsibilities, like preparing a World Junior team for a title defense on home ice and the everyday duties of being USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations. If anyone can do it, it’s him, but it’s still a lot to handle on top of building a team for the most important international hockey tournament that exists — with or without the NHL players.

To be clear, this isn’t something I view as a problem as I don’t think anyone knows the available player pool as comprehensively as Johannson does. But it is worth noting as one of the challenges that exists for USA’s GM.

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The writing was already on the wall that this was a possibility, so Johannson had already built a list that he says runs about 80 to 90 players that are options for the Olympics. Those 80-90 players will span college hockey, recently retired or unsigned NHL players, the AHL and ECHL (so long as the players in question are not under NHL contract) in North America and a multitude of European pro leagues — most notably, the KHL (Russia), DEL (Germany), NLA (Switzerland), SHL (Sweden) and SM-Liiga (Finland). That’s a lot of ground to cover with six months to go before the Olympics.

So before I get into which players specifically are among those that either could be or should be under USA Hockey’s consideration, I thought it made sense to detail what the staff is up against as it tries to put together a medal contending team.

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World Junior Summer Showcase Thoughts: Returnees, top prospects shine brightest

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Coming into the year as the defending World Junior Champions is an enviable position, but the last eight years have shown just how hard it is to repeat. Since Canada’s run of five consecutive world titles, no team has won the WJC in consecutive years.

The Americans will be looking to do it, on home ice no less as they head to Buffalo in 2018 in the very same position they were in, in 2011. The first steps toward the repeat bid were taken last week at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich. The Americans convened over nine days to practice and play in a series of games with the last three coming with a pared down roster against top WJC opponents Sweden, Finland and Canada.

The defending champs won all three games and went 7-2 when you include the split-squad games before cuts were made at camp.

I used to be able to spend a lot more time watching the games from this camp, but didn’t have that luxury this time. I did, however, watch the last three games after cuts which brought forth a lot of valuable viewing and information about this group.

Knowing that it’s summer hockey and because I only was able to watch the last three games, I wasn’t able to get a full read on every player that came to camp. I still took some to collect some overall thoughts based on what I was able to see. A lot tends to reveal itself in a short amount of time in these types of settings.

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USA Hockey’s first step towards Olympics is a good one with Tony Granato, staff

unnamedThe U.S. Men’s Olympic Team is going to look a lot different than what we’ve seen over the last 20 years at the Olympic Winter Games. It may take some getting used to for the fans, but if you love the game of hockey, there has to be some level of intrigue creeping in.

I’ll admit, I was furious when the NHL opted not to send their players to PeyongChang in 2018. It’s especially hard to swallow given the influx of young American talent filtering into the league at a higher clip of late. After years of sketchy center depth, adding Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel down the middle was more than a little enticing. But they won’t be there. And it’s time to make peace with that.

It’s a little easier to make peace with it because of the announcement USA Hockey made Friday morning in Plymouth, Michigan. By putting Tony Granato behind the bench as head coach, the Americans will have a uniquely-qualified individual to lead the team. They’ve also built a staff where each assistant coach brings something a little different that could end up making a big difference in the results. Continue reading

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2017 World Juniors Wrap: Why this U.S. team was so special; player-by-player reviews

Did that really happen? Did Team USA really go 7-0 at the World Junior Championship on the way to gold? Did they really beat their two biggest rivals twice in the same tournament? Did Troy Terry really go 4-for-4 in a shootout? Did Tyler Parsons really make those saves? Were there really two shootouts? Seriously, did all of that happen?

It did.

The U.S. is World Junior Champion once again and they had to do it the hard way. Nothing came easy to this team and no matter what stood in their way, they found a way to overcome it. That’s what will make this particular title so memorable. This team was not favored, and rightly so. But they showed what can happen when a team comes together and every single player is on board, the coaches are well prepared and a few individuals step up to deliver in the biggest moments.

Another incredible thing that this group did was that they managed to capture a wide audience’s attention with their incredible final against Canada. #WJC2017 was a top trending topic in the United States on Twitter. Prominent sportswriters, politicians and sports personalities were tweeting about the game. Facebook and Twitter were flooded with American flag emojis and bar TVs across the country tuned into the World Junior Championship.

Having covered the tournament for the last seven years on this blog, I never thought I would see the tournament gain that much traction. It all had to do with the incredible theater the final provided, but good sports drama is just plain good TV. Also, NHL.com deciding to stream the game made for a much larger audience. I wonder if we’ll ever see the numbers for it since NHL Network is not rated by Nielsen, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it was a big night for NHL Network and NHL.com. The buzz was insane

This was a peak moment for this tournament in the United States and I don’t know if it can be replicated. What I do know is that this tournament is going to have a lot more fans eager to tune in now because how could you not after a game like that?

So, it’s time to wrap up the 2017 WJC. Here are some of the things I’ll remember about the tournament and I also decided to bring back the old player capsules I used to do after every tournament. So you’ll get my thoughts on all 23 USA players. Let’s get to it.

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USA beats Canada in epic World Junior Championship Final: 5 takeaways from an all-time great WJC game

Tyler Parsons turned aside all five Canadian shooters and Troy Terry did what Troy Terry does as the U.S. beat Canada 5-4 in one of the best World Junior Championship finals ever.

The U.S. had to overcome a 2-0 deficit after the first period by scoring two in the second. Canada jumped out to a 4-2 lead within the first 4:05 of the third period. Within 3:02 the U.S. had knotted the game 4-4.

They stayed scoreless through the end of regulation. Scoreless through a frenetically played 5-on-5 OT for 20 minutes. Then the stage was set for Parsons and Terry to play hero for the second straight game and they both rose to the challenge.

The U.S. has now won three straight gold-medal games against Canada. Additionally, their three golds since 2010 are the most for any country since Canada won five straight from 2005-09. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since then either. This tournament has been so unpredictable and fun over these last seven years and it’s only getting better.

You think about all of the guys who could be in this tournament for all teams and the kids that are available deliver a show like that? The future of this game is so bright.

There is so much to get to, so let’s get it started…

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2017 WJC Gold-Medal Game Preview: USA vs. Canada — 4 things to know; NHL.com to stream game live

After a thrilling semifinal victory over Russia Wednesday, the U.S. National Junior Team faces yet another familiar foe and a bigger challenge as they’ll take on Canada for the gold medal at the 2017 World Junior Championship.

The puck is set to drop around 8 p.m. ET and will air live on NHL Network and will also be streamed on NHL.com. Here is the official stream link: https://www.nhl.com/video/live-usa-vs-canada-on-nhln/t-285362346/c-48065703

The U.S. is facing the daunting task of having to beat not one, but two teams twice in the same tournament. It’s never been done before, to my knowledge. Not only that, but they have to beat the host team on the grandest stage in junior hockey. It’s an incredible test for a team that has found a way to pass every single one before this.

With their win over Russia, the first medal-round victory for Team USA against their old rival ever at the World Juniors, this team did something incredibly special. But to make that win iconic, at least relative to U.S. World Junior history, they have to win the whole thing.

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