Following their putrid 28-win season, the New Jersey Devils found themselves at the NHL draft in Chicago feeling both pumped about executing their enviable 1st overall pick and stressed knowing they had to find a way to remedy the tepid play that had plagued their previous season.
After cashing in their 1st overall pick on Niko Hischier, the Devils began to focus on adding top college free agents who had either turned down or not received deals from the major league teams that drafted them.
The Devils, along with a slew of other teams like the Red Wings, Penguins, Blackhawks, Wild, Sabres, and Maple Leafs, zeroed in on Will Butcher, a 5- foot-10, left-handed defencemen from the University of Denver. During his four-year college career, Butcher accumulated 103 points in 158 games and served as captain for two years. He went on to win the NCAA championship with Denver and was awarded the Hobey Baker Award (the MVP award for college hockey), placing him among an elite group of past winners like Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau who have already made their presence felt in the NHL by scoring a combined 176 points last season.
Butcher, now a highly prized prospect, turned down an offer from the Colorado Avalanche in April, opting instead to proceed to free agency. This move left the organization and its fans surprised and bitter. Many members of the Colorado press claimed that he had “used an NCAA loophole” to avoid signing with the Avalanche, but what Butcher did next left the entire league dumbfounded.
Butcher chose to sign with the hurting 28-win New Jersey Devils rather than the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and other contenders like the Chicago Blackhawks. Many wondered why Butcher would make such an improbable move. League insiders claimed Butcher had a strained relationship with the Avalanche coaching staff and management after former Avalanche Head Coach Patrick Roy voiced his disinterest in “undersized defenseman.” At 5’10, Butcher is well under the 6’1 average height of NHL defenseman. While this might have impacted Butcher’s decision to some degree, it would appear that his motivation ran much deeper than fans realized.
For starters, it’s worth mentioning another solid signing by the New Jersey Devils in 23- year-old Sam Kurker, who was ranked the number 2 college free agent, just behind–you guessed it–Will Butcher. After playing on their minor league team, Kurker passed on an offer from the St. Louis Blues to pursue free agency, ending up with the Devils.
Ice time was clearly another strong consideration for Butcher. Teams that pursued him, like the Blackhawks and Penguins, had established and formidable defensive cores and parings that would be hard to break. Consequently, Butcher would likely find himself on the bench — or worse — forced to play more time in the minor leagues until a spot opened up. In Jersey, Butcher will join a fairly young defensive core that will surely offer him more ice time if he continues to play well.
Finally, in addition to signing two great college free agents in Butcher and Kurker, the Devils also acquired Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals in exchange for 2 future draft picks. Johansson is coming off a career year in which he accumulated 58 points and the Devil’s hope adding him to the line will help revitalize all-star winger Taylor Hall’s scoring. Johansson also will bring experience to the roster and serve as assistant captain.
All in all, It would appear that through the addition of players like Sam Kurker and Marcus Johansson along with the added ice-time, Butchers decision to leave Colorado was well founded.
Butcher is already making his presence felt. Just last week, the “undersized” defenseman registered 3 assists against his former team in his first official regular season game. This influx of offensive talent and defensive skill backstopped by Cory Schneider will surely propel the Devils to a better season and possibly back to the glory days of 1995, 2000 and 2003.