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.