The Will Butcher Derby ended on Sunday, with the NCAA free-agent defenseman selecting the New Jersey Devils as his NHL team and signing a two-year deal.
If you’re understandable response to that news was “why?”, Butcher has an answer for you.
“I kind of hit it off with coach Hynes,” said Butcher of John Hynes, entering his third season behind the bench with the Devils. “I think he’s a sound hockey mind, a sound coach. It’s a great fit with how I want to play.”
After four years at the University of Denver, the defenseman opted not to sign with the Colorado Avalanche – after being drafted 123rd overall at the 2013 NHL Draft, held in New Jersey – and became the summer’s belle of the NCAA free-agent ball. The 2017 Hobey Baker winner whittled down his suitors to a final four of the Devils, the Vegas Golden Knights, the Los Angeles Kings and the Buffalo Sabres. (“It was the rock star tour,” he said.)
In the end, it was Hynes, his system and the franchise’s approach to player development that lured him to the Devils.
“They cater to their guys and help get them ready for the NHL game. Certain things, from taking repetitions to going out one day and taking puck touches,” he said. “It was very appealing for me to talk about that stuff: To take a younger guy like me, 22, just coming into the NHL, and they’re going to put me in places to succeed rather than just throw me into the fire of the NHL.”
As much as Butcher connected with Hynes on a personal level, the system he plays was of equal enticement. The Devils want to play an up-tempo, attacking style of hockey. But it’s a system that doesn’t demand that its defensemen all need to play like Erik Karlsson – speed, within the context of Hynes’s system, means making smart and quick hockey plays. For defensemen, it means stretching the ice for their forwards rather than having to always carry the puck themselves.
It means outthinking and out-anticipating your opponent.
It means playing hockey like Butcher likes to play it.
“I might not be the fasted guy or the biggest guy out there,” said Butcher, intensifying to two most frequent criticisms of his game, “but I like to pride myself in thinking the game fast. I use my brain to be fast. Try to anticipate plays. Use my hockey smarts to be a step quicker than other players.”
Butcher said he grew up watching Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and would like to emulate him, but a better proxy might be a player like Devils captain Andy Greene. He stands an inch taller than Butcher (5-11) and isn’t exactly known for blazing skating. But he’s as sound and smart as they come.
“I want to make the team out of camp, and have to chance to learn from the older guys and skate with the younger players,” said Butcher.
Where does he fit? Butcher played the right side for the last two years at Denver, out of necessity for the team. He can play either side of the defense, with no stated preference. (Let it be said the Devils might need a bit more help on the right side.)
If he makes the team out of camp, Butcher could also see immediate time on the Devils’ power play, as Hynes likes his deception at the point and the way he distributes the puck.
The Devils used to be a factory for young defensemen like Butcher, but have seen more leave underdeveloped than stick around and blossom. They’re also a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012, including two straight years in the lottery under John Hynes.
But whatever trouble he’s had winning games for New Jersey, Hynes indisputably helped them to an offseason victory by selling Will Butcher on the franchise.
“The guy knows the game. He has a passion for the game. I’d like to say I have a passion for the game, too,” said Butcher.
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