What We Learned: The Will Butcher sweepstakes begins

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(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Tomorrow is the day.

It’s another Aug. 15, and a former high-end NCAA player will have his draft rights lapse, making him an unrestricted free agent. In the past, guys like Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes were the guys who got a lot of attention.

This time around, it’s former Denver defenseman and most recent Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher.

The talk about Butcher has been more muted than Vesey or Hayes, for reasons that aren’t totally clear to me. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s a defenseman and not a high-scoring forward. Maybe it’s because the team he’s leaving is the Colorado Avalanche, and there’s no clear big-market destination either (Hayes was leaving Chicago and went to New York; Vesey left Nashville in a more high-profile spat, and also ended up in New York). Maybe it’s because Butcher is undersized for an NHL defender, at just 5-foot-10.

But let’s be clear here: Regardless of these mitigating factors, Butcher is a damn good hockey player who put up a lot of points, has represented the United States internationally and, if he were a prospect for most any team, would have been hyped to the moon.

The reason he’s not signing with Colorado is, apparently, that he wanted to come out of college after his junior year and the Avs didn’t think he was ready (whether he was then is debatable, whether he is now is not), so he went back, was the best defenseman in the country by a fair margin, and won a national championship. Not a bad way to prove ’em wrong, if you want to call it that.

The usual caveats with any NCAA UFA apply here: Butcher was dominant at the college level (and the fact that college hockey stats collection is generally lacking is a huge reason I can’t give you a big, impressive “Here’s his relative CF%” that would help sell those who never saw him play). But he was also in his draft-year-plus-four, so he should have been dominant if he were any kind of high-end player.

Whether that translates to an NHL game at this point in his career is difficult to say. Contrary to popular belief, it probably doesn’t take defensemen longer to “learn” how to play at the NHL level, but whether Butcher is, say, a middle-pairing NHL defender right this second is a difficult thing to say. After all, look at all the hype Vesey got coming out of Harvard, where he dominated a mediocre NCAA conference.

(Worth noting here, too, that Vesey’s old Harvard teammate Alex Kerfoot is also a pending UFA after refusing to sign with the Devils, but he looks to me a lot more like an AHL guy for a few years at least; teams should look to sign him because he helps the organization, but he’s not making an NHL impact for a while, if ever. Only one NCAA season with a double-digit goal total, he’s also 23, etc.)

People wrongly thought Vesey was a top-six option for the Rangers, but while he ended up with 16 goals — on about 14 percent shooting — seven of those came in his first 15 games. He had nine goals and 16 points in his final 65 games, which is not good. He was 200th among the 340 NHL forwards who played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 in shot attempts per 60 (which is to say “not in the top half”), and ended up only playing about 13:30 a night. Also not good. Certainly not top-six material. Which, if you watched him play in college and had a conception of how points in various conferences translate to NHL production, you probably could have seen coming.

Further, Vesey was a year older coming out of college than Butcher is now (23 versus 22), and Butcher played in probably the best conference in the nation last season, taking all the hardest match-ups for the best team in the country and scoring a bunch. So probably you say Butcher scans a little better than Vesey did, but it’s hard to say by how much because of the way we can collect data for forwards versus defensemen at that level.

With all that having been said, even if you were a little down on Vesey’s or Hayes’s ability to play at the NHL level right away (in Hayes’s case, you shouldn’t have been, and that’s been borne out by years of results at this point), or if you’re not exactly enthusiastic about Butcher, the fact is that there should be 31 teams vying for the services of players like this.

I’ve seen arguments against it for various reasons, such as skills-related redundancies, but the way you have to look at Butcher, Vesey, Hayes, or any other college free agent is “this is a free asset.” In Butcher’s case, he happens to be the second-highest scoring college defenseman of the past four years (with 103 points in 158 games) and only piled up 53 penalty minutes in that time. It’s pretty incredible.

But here’s how you can look at getting a player via this method of a mid-August signing: If you could just buy another team’s draft pick off them, basically trade cash for, let’s say, a pick in the first three rounds, you would do that, right? That’s basically what you’re doing here, except instead of trading for a player you take at 18 and hope he becomes “something,” you have four (or in Vesey’s case, five) years of data about what that player can do.

In Vesey’s case, it seems everyone overrated him, but let’s note that even if you have a dim view of his quality, he’s absolutely an NHL-quality player. Same is true for Butcher. What level of NHL player he is remains to be seen — right now I’d say he’s probably a bottom-pairing guy, but also probably a good one — but regardless, you’re getting an NHL player on an entry-level contract. Pretty sweet deal, and he’s only 22, with another four years or so of development ahead of him. And even if he never becomes a top-pairing guy (which he probably won’t!) you got an NHLer you control for years to come for nothing but money.

Moreover, Butcher’s agent has said in interviews that his client is looking for the best organizational fit, blah blah blah, but that includes the understanding that if the player needs some time in the AHL, that’s not a big deal. So it’s not like this is some prima donna bad-in-the-room guy who’s demanding an NHL role and so on. The AHL thing probably is a talking point; maybe teams just aren’t sold on him, so the agent is doing some hustling to get them more eager. Maybe it’s all politics. Who knows.

Point is, Butcher is an NHLer based on everything I’ve seen of him the past two years, and the only reason teams shouldn’t be interested in a 22-year-old with a great pedigree is if they’re pushing up against the 50-contract limit. Other than that, this kid is as good of a player as Vesey was this time last year, if not better. There are, however, twice as many forward spots in the NHL, so it’s easier to break into the league that way.

Butcher “makes sense” for any team to sign because he’s a free asset, a relatively known quantity, and a pretty good college player. Doesn’t mean he’s an NHL All-Star, but if teams want to succeed in this league, they need guys who can play, and do it for cheap. Butcher absolutely fits that bill.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: I understand being skeptical of Jakob Silfverberg’s ability to close in on 50 points again, especially given who his linemates were last year and where their careers are likely headed, but if he gets on the first PP unit I don’t see it as a huge hurdle.

Arizona Coyotes: Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of those guys where at the end of his career, we’ll be asking, “How good could he have been if his team weren’t horrible for the vast majority of his time in the league?”

Boston Bruins: Do the Bruins somehow not-need help on the wings?

Buffalo Sabres: Yeah we needed another “Is Rasmus Ristolainen great?” debate. He’s not, by the way.

Calgary Flames: Adam Fox really does scan as a very good D prospect. I’m excited to see him again this season.

Carolina Hurricanes: I doubt there are too many GMs in this league smarter than Ron Francis, so I’ll believe he’s not doing a good job when I see it.

Chicago: I don’t doubt everyone on the team wants to do better, but what are the odds they pull off another 100-plus-point season with this group? It’s not outside the realm of possibility but if I were choosing between “less than 100 points and another first-round exit” and “something other than that,” I know what I’m going with.

Colorado Avalanche: Dreger says the Duchene camp is turning up the heat on a trade demand. God, can’t they just pull the trigger on this already? Man.

Columbus Blue Jackets: You gotta bless up Nick Foligno for all he does in the community in Columbus. Seems like one of the league’s real Good Guys.

Dallas Stars: Also gotta bless up the Stars for this one. This is basic doing-the-right-thing.

Detroit Red Wings: Bold take here, for sure.

Edmonton Oilers: I’m really pulling for Kailer Yamamoto. Just a little fella who’s probably been told he’s too small his entire career. I remember when Johnny Gaudreau was coming into the league and people said “Ah well, he can get away from those guys in college, but this is the NHL. Someone’s gonna kill him” Three full seasons and .88 points per game later, I’m still waiting for Gaudreau to get really clobbered. Tyler Johnson is close to being a great player. Martin St. Louis is a Hall of Famer. Let’s go, kid.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers lost FOUR of their top-six scorers from last season? Oh man. When you put it like that…

Los Angeles Kings: Can you imagine the takes if Jeff Carter did this in an NHL game? It would rule.

Minnesota Wild: Eric Staal is back to 100 percent and says he never thought for a second he’d end up in Las Vegas. Yeah, me neither.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens are certainly good enough to keep things going in the division, but this really doesn’t look to me like an elite Eastern Conference team. What that means for Marc Bergevin, well… he’s the guy who let a lot of star players go the last two summers, isn’t he?

Nashville Predators: Assuming the injury isn’t too much of a concern, I’m putting Kevin Fiala down for a big season.

New Jersey Devils: Not sure I can agree with this take. When you’re one of the worst teams in the league you probably need to improve everything — by a lot — to qualify as “good.”

New York Islanders: Awful optimistic of ol’ Anders Lee here. He’d know better than a lot of people, I guess, but still.

New York Rangers: Uh, wwwwwwhhhhhhaaaaaaatttttttt.

Ottawa Senators: Bryan Murray was one of the game’s great characters. This story rules:

This story from Bryan Murray is amazing. Talking about how he pulled off one of the best deals he ever made. pic.twitter.com/IMdBLLgpX5

— SensChirp (@SensChirp) August 12, 2017

Philadelphia Flyers: Really hope Shayne Gostisbehere can have a great season and maybe get everyone off his back. Such a fun player.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Listen, it’s great that Matt Murray brought the Cup to his hometown again and all that sort of stuff but the real gem of this article is that there’s a town called Pickle Lake, Ontario. Delightful.

San Jose Sharks: Someone should be in jail for these “special” AHL jerseys.

St. Louis Blues: An arena funding dispute! Hooray!

Tampa Bay Lightning: “Not much.”

Toronto Maple Leafs: Will Joffrey Lupul play for the Leafs this season? I’m gonna lean toward “no” but seems like he really wants to.

Vancouver Canucks: Henrik no!!!!

Vegas Golden Knights: Wayne Gretzky thinks Vegas will be a good team in the future. Not too soon, I bet.

Washington Capitals: Ilya Samsonov doesn’t think the Caps are “cursed” but he might want to tell all the guys on the team that because it sure seems like they do.

Winnipeg Jets: Ah man, Jacob Trouba’s gonna get a huge deal. Huge.

Gold Star Award

Sign Jagr.

Minus of the Weekend

You never expect to see a bunch of white supremacists make news by using an NHL logo as their own, but the world has fresh horrors for us every single day. Hateful, monstrous weekend in Charlottesville.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Caps4Cup17” has a good one for ya.

Calgary: John Carlson + 3rd

Washington: Dougie Hamilton + Michael Frolik


Class after class of ugly, ugly children.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)


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