The Will Butcher Derby will likely reach the finish line this weekend, with the Hobey Baker Award winner from the University of Denver expected to announce a decision Sunday or Monday about which NHL team he will sign with as a free agent.
Butcher, who did not sign with the Colorado Avalanche after they drafted him in the fifth round in 2013, has spent this month on phone conference calls and then in-person visits with several NHL teams. The Sabres, Vegas Golden Knights and New Jersey Devils are believed to be high on Butcher's list.
But multiple reports have Butcher still choosing among 6-10 teams, with the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins moving up on his list. Based on age, Butcher is limited to a two-year, entry-level contract worth $925,000 per season and potential bonuses of $2.85 million.
Butcher is a left-shot defenseman whose offensive production increased each year with Denver, which won the national championship in April. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder had seven goals and 30 assists last season while serving as the Pioneers' captain.
Butcher met with the Sabres here last week and was caught in the Denver airport carrying a Sabres duffel bag on his return home. His signing would thrust him into a competition with a suddenly crowded Buffalo blueline.
— Mike Chambers (@MikeChambers) August 19, 2017
At the NHL level, all three of Buffalo's new defensemen (Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Victor Antipin) are left shots. Among prospects, the top lefties the Sabres are expected to have in Rochester are 20-year-old Brendan Guhle and 28-year-old Justin Falk.
Interestingly, Butcher and his representatives have made it clear they're not automatically assuming a deal with any team will translate to immediate NHL playing time. Unless he has a big training camp, the Sabres would almost certainly be starting him with the Amerks.
"He wants to play for team that really understands and believes in him as a player and what he can bring to an organization, so it's weeding out the ones who just kind of want good players since every team needs good players," agent Brian Bartlett told NHL.com this week. "The second part is which team has the opportunity and resources to give him the best chance to be a longtime professional player. We haven't been demanding he make the team right out of camp or have a roster spot. It's about the process over the next couple of years."
Butcher has several connections to the Sabres. He played under new coach Phil Housley at the 2012 All-American Prospects Game in Key Bank Center and has played with Jack Eichel and Hudson Fasching in the World Junior Championships. He also played with Zemgus Girgensons during the 2010-11 season for Dubuque, Iowa, in the United States Hockey League.
Another college free agent the Sabres were known to be interested in, University of Maine center Blaine Byron, signed an AHL contract Friday with the Florida Panthers' affiliate in Springfield, Mass. Sabres GM Jason Botterill knows Byron well because the 6-foot, 172-pounder was drafted by the Penguins in the sixth round in 2013 and opted not to sign.
Byron, an Ottawa native, led Maine in scoring last season in goals (18) and points (41). The Senators were also among the teams known to be interested in his services.
Several of the Sabres' young players and a few veterans are already skating informally at HarborCenter in preparation for the season. The first official event is the team's third annual Prospects Challenge at the practice rink Sept. 8-11. The Sabres' first game is Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. against New Jersey. Boston and Pittsburgh are also entered in the round-robin event.
Tickets are $10 per game and available at the KeyBank Center box office and Sabres.com.
The Sabres' NHL preseason opens here Sept. 18 against Carolina.
The Amerks will be hosting the Toronto Marlies in two preseason games, Sept. 29 at RIT's Polisseni Center and Sept. 30 at HarborCenter. Both games start at 7:05 and tickets go on sale Aug. 30.
Tickets for the HarborCenter game are $10 for general admission or $5 for Amerks and Sabres season ticket-holders. They will be available Wednesday at Tickets.com, Amerks.com or at the box offices of KeyBank Center and Blue Cross Arena.
The Amerks' season opens at home Oct. 6 against Syracuse. Their annual game in KeyBank Center will also be against the Crunch, Feb. 21 at 7:05.