The Buffalo Sabres tried to land college hockey's top player last summer but Harvard winger Jimmy Vesey opted for the bright lights of New York and signed with the Rangers. Now comes a report that the Sabres are apparently back in the market for the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner this August.
According to the Denver Post, University of Denver defenseman Will Butcher is set to become a free agent at midnight and is not expected to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2013.
Like Vesey, Butcher becomes an unrestricted free agent at midnight on Aug. 16. The Post says Butcher is expected to meet with the Sabres, New Jersey Devils and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights before making a decision.
The 5-foot-10 Butcher captained the Pioneers to the Frozen Four championship in April. The Avalanche immediately offered him his entry-level deal when the tournament ended but he opted not to sign and keep his free-agent possibilities open.
Butcher had seven goals and posted career-highs in assists (30) and points (37) last year for Denver. A former US National Development Team player, his point totals increased each year of his college career as his mobility and playmaking skills improved. He was the first defenseman to win college hockey's Heisman since 2009 and although his size may limit his NHL career rise, he could eventually project to a second-pair defenseman in the league.
Butcher is said to have soured on former Avs coach Patrick Roy, but Roy left his post in August and was replaced by Jared Bendar as Colorado struggled to the worst record in the NHL last year. After the Frozen Four, Butcher met with Avs General Manager Joe Sakic but opted not to sign.
“He came in and gave me his whole spiel about changes in the program, going younger and everything like that. I told him I’d get back in touch with him,” Butcher said in April. “I’m weighing all my options right now. I want to take my time. I don’t have anything to rush into right now. I’m not going to play anywhere right now. So I might as well take my time.”
That time is apparently now.
The Sabres continue to have needs on defense at both the NHL and AHL level. But new general manager Jason Botterill has done a quick makeover of his blueline by trading for Minnesota's Marco Scandella and Montreal's Nathan Beaulieu while also signing KHL free agent Victor Antipin.
Butcher is the kind of player former General Manager Tim Murray was interested in: An early- to mid-20s prospect with sound experience in college or some experience in the NHL. That is a model Botterill believes in as well.
Money would not be a factor in Butcher's decision. He would be limited to signing a standard entry-level deal paying $925,000 per season, with attainable bonuses pushing the package to around $3.7 per year based on his production.