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.
The 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.
I don’t think he’s as exciting a prospect as Jimmy Vesey was last year, but I think Butcher is the kind of player that was going to help an organization. Skilled, but not flashy, Butcher is going to have to adjust to the NHL pace and the size factor is always the great unknown as he’s undersized by NHL standards. That said, he skates well, sees the ice very well and those smarts can carry him a long way if he’s given the right kind of opportunities. And, as mentioned, his game has continually improved over the last four years with him becoming a dominant force in one of the NHL’s top feeder leagues.
All-in-all, the Devils are better today than they were yesterday. Butcher isn’t magically coming in and saving the franchise — that’s what Hischier is for — but he’s a nice piece to add at a really reasonable price and he adds an element that the Devils did not have on their back end at this point.
So, let’s get to the mini-debate session that was touched off when Columbus Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky tweeted this:
Now let’s get a few things out of the way first…
For one, I think it’s only natural for established veteran players to be frustrated by the attention these NCAA free agents receive from the teams that look to acquire their services. The top college UFAs often have an opportunity to handpick their team, which is an opportunity most players are never, ever going to have even when they become UFAs themselves. And this happens for guys who haven’t played a minute in the league.
Additionally, the Blue Jackets were spurned by one such player, Mike Reilly, who chose to play for his hometown Minnesota Wild instead of signing with Columbus. Reilly still hasn’t quite yet established himself as an NHL player, but that’s neither here nor there. At the time, the Jackets were pretty upset about it, players and management.
Dubinsky is right that the teams this happens to don’t love it. They’ve invested a draft pick, they’ve put time into working with the player at various camps and meetings, and they lose a guy they figured they’d be able to count on.
It also may not seem fair for the major junior players, but that’s all part of the decision process when picking between the two routes. Additionally, major junior players can sign early without losing their junior eligibility, giving them a chance to earn at least a signing bonus while still developing at their own pace in junior. Lastly, there is a mechanism in place that would allow major junior players to become free agents, if they didn’t sign or refused to sign. They just don’t happen all that often. Reid Duke, for instance, was not signed by the Minnesota Wild who drafted him, but signed as a UFA by the Vegas Golden Knights. The way the CBA handles junior players is definitely different, and there are certainly a few disadvantages (like not being able to play in the AHL until after their age 19 year), but the system seems to work just fine for most players.
Lastly, there is nothing to be “figured out.” The way the rule works is that, so long as a player remains a bona fide college student, the team that drafts him retains his draft rights for the first four years following his draft season.
There has to be a limit on how long a team holds a player’s draft rights, something that is collectively bargained for between the NHL and NHLPA. If a team were to hold a player’s draft rights for longer, or if they never expire, that gives the team a TON of power and leverage over a player. “OK, you don’t want to sign with us? Well, sit tight because we’re not trading your draft rights.” I’m not saying that would happen, but NHL teams use every inch of leverage they can in a cap world. The NHLPA would not allow members or prospective members to lose that.
And to be honest, some college coaches don’t like the draft rights rule as it is either because it makes NHL teams more eager to sign players earlier and earlier. There’s no question that NHL teams are sometimes antsier when it comes to signing college players because of this threat of this deadline always looming. In the end, the number of players leaving college “too early” is not high enough (in my opinion, probably not the college coaches) to merit concern. There are more one-and-done players than there have ever been, but that speaks to college hockey’s ability to attract the elite player with increased regularity. The Jack Eichels and Dylan Larkins and Clayton Kellers of the world are good, even if they’re only around for a year.
This rule, and again it is a rule that is collectively bargained for and not a loophole (a term I used to use inaccurately for this, too), is one of the very few incentives a higher-end college player has to stay four years.
In the end, I don’t think the NHL is going to haggle over this rule too much. I think the only thing they might consider is adding in a compensatory draft pick for a team that loses a player via this route. That’s still kind of tricky because there are a lot of players out there that get drafted and never end up signing a contract. So how do you separate the teams that are losing a player they wanted and losing one they didn’t? Teams assume some level of risk (in many different ways) with every single player they draft.
Another reason the league shouldn’t have a huge problem with it is that the players that this rule is benefiting are rarely huge impact players. Many of them have been pretty good, but Blake Wheeler is the only bonafide NHL star to have chosen this route. There’s no question that guys like Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey and probably Butcher help the teams they end up playing for, but does their absence really kill the teams they ditched? Probably not (though it’s too early to say for sure I guess).
In Butcher’s case, there was also that whole period of time where the Avs basically told him they didn’t want him anymore.
From the Denver Post‘s Mike Chambers:
Near the end of Butcher’s junior season a year ago, the Avalanche told Butcher’s “family adviser” the team was not interested in signing the 5-foot-10, 190-pound defenseman at any point. But that attitude toward Butcher was believed to have emanated from then-coach Patrick Roy, who was also the Avs’ vice president. Roy resigned in August, and the Avs had scouts or team executives at numerous DU home games this season.
Considering Butcher was coming off of his best collegiate season to that point and had showed significant strides in his game, that was terrible asset management from the Avs. They had a whole other year to let Butcher stay at DU with free rights to him. Even though it was believed to be driven by Roy, who is now gone, that damage was done. So the whole argument that he owed the Avs anything at that point is moot.
Meanwhile, people seem to get bent out of shape about the “hype” these players get. Here’s why these players get so much media attention: IT’S AUGUST. Additionally — and I’ve said this a lot over the years — the reason so many teams are interested in these players and pursue them pretty aggressively is that they’re cheap prospects with established talent that require less time to develop. But most of all, they’re cheap. Nobody has to outbid anyone else in terms of cap space and salary because they’re all on the ELC. Don’t confuse the attention and pursuit for there being a widely-held opinion that these players are going to be stars.
To wrap this up, teams have four years to sign college players. In the meantime, they pay nothing for the player while that player gets top-notch development playing against older players and getting to use world-class training facilities. What they ultimately lose is the up-front investment of a draft pick — which in some cases is worse than others.
Meanwhile, the players aren’t doing anything anyone in their position wouldn’t at least consider. While the NHL team that drafted them gets a huge window of exclusive negotiating rights which is theoretically advantageous for them, it is difficult to compete with the allure of speaking with whoever the player wants to. They’ll never get that chance again.
The rule is fine the way it is. The system is working the way it’s supposed to.