Will Butcher spends most sultry summer days in Denver on the ice at his alma mater or in the weight room.
His offseason routine doesn’t differ much from the one he followed in 2017, a chaotic time when, as the top free agent exiting college hockey, he fielded offers from teams across the National Hockey League, including the Buffalo Sabres.
Butcher’s four-day-a-week, on-ice training regimen emphasizes smart decision-making, puck retrieval and executing precise breakout passes. Every drill is designed to enhance his strengths and improve his weaknesses.
Yet, much has changed for Butcher, a 26-year-old left-shot defenseman, since he chose to join the New Jersey Devils after a 2016-17 season in which he won the prestigious Hobey Baker Award as a senior at the University of Denver. Butcher and his wife, Tayler, recently welcomed their first child, and professionally, he is preparing for his fifth NHL season.
For all that Butcher has accomplished at the highest level, including a spot on the league’s all-rookie team with 44 points in 2017-18, he is again out to prove that he belongs. Butcher went unselected by the Seattle Kraken after being exposed by the Devils in the expansion draft. He then got traded with a fifth-round draft choice to the struggling Sabres in exchange for future considerations.
Essentially discarded for nothing – New Jersey even retained $910,569 of his $3.733 million cap hit – Butcher isn’t viewing the change as a negative. His voice struck an optimistic tone as he described the opportunity that awaits in Buffalo.
“When it happened and I found out it was Buffalo, I was super excited,” Butcher, who is entering the final year of his contract, told The Buffalo News during a recent phone interview. “Before coming to New Jersey and I was leaving college as a free agent, I couldn’t speak enough about the Pegulas and everything they have going there, the effort and first-class organization that they’re running. It’s pretty special to be traded to such a place that values hockey, especially the fans. That’s why I was very excited when I found out it was the Sabres.”
To understand the joy experienced by Butcher at the time of the trade last month, it’s important to look at what occurred during his final season in New Jersey. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Butcher showed from 2017 to 2019 that he can be a reliable, effective second-pair defenseman at even strength.
Among all defense pairs to skate 200 minutes together at 5-on-5 in 2017-18, Butcher and veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy ranked fourth in limiting on-ice shot quality, according to Evolving-Hockey. Butcher’s contributions in all situations the following season is best illustrated by his 13.1 goals above replacement, which ranked 16th among defensemen.
Butcher’s 37 power-play points in his first two NHL seasons also ranked 16th, and his work on the man advantage as a rookie helped the Devils make a stunning push to reach the playoffs.
There was some regression in Butcher’s game in 2019-20, as he did not have the same supporting cast. Lovejoy was gone and Butcher didn't have a consistent partner, as he skated at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with five different defensemen.
There was also a midseason coaching change and a shift in role, offseason addition PK Subban took Butcher's spot on the power play. Butcher also missed the final weeks of the season because of a thumb injury that required surgery, as he finished with only four goals and 21 points in 56 games after totaling 74 points over his first two seasons.
A reconfiguration of the roster – headlined by the Subban trade in June 2019 – failed miserably for New Jersey. General Manager Ray Shero was fired and, seeking a veteran coach to teach the young roster how to play responsibly, the franchise hired Lindy Ruff in July 2020.
Another coach meant another system and different preferred style of play. Ty Smith, a left-shot defenseman drafted in the first round by New Jersey in 2018, earned a prominent role in training camp last January and Ruff wanted more size on the blue line, pushing Butcher to the bottom of the depth chart.
Butcher was a healthy scratch for the first nine games of the season, and he sat for 18 consecutive games from March 7 through April 11. He finished with only one goal and 11 points in 23 games.
“For me, I just tried to be a great teammate at the end of the day,” said Butcher. “It wasn’t a situation I wanted to be in, by any means. You always want to be playing and the games I did get to play, put my best effort out there and did whatever I could to help the team win. The whole season that’s what I did. I was proud of myself at the end of the year. Even though I didn’t get to play as much, I was a good teammate and helped when I could when I was in there.”
It wasn’t until late in the season that Butcher was placed in a prominent role, as he averaged 20:45 of ice time while recording eight assists in 12 games from April 20 through May 10. He had a pair of multipoint games, including three assists during a loss at Pittsburgh, and showed mettle by blocking six shots against the Islanders in the Devils’ second-to-last game of the season.
The strong finish wasn’t enough to change the Devils’ plans. When the season ended, Butcher knew he was going to be exposed in the expansion draft and, if unselected, would likely be shopped on the trade market. It wasn’t a discouraging update for Butcher.
“I took that as a sign of hope from me because I don’t want to be somewhere where I don’t get to play,” said Butcher. “I was excited about it and thought I would benefit from a fresh start.”
Butcher’s fate was sealed when the Devils acquired defenseman Ryan Graves and signed top free agent Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract. The Sabres, meanwhile, lost Jake McCabe to the Chicago Blackhawks and traded Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia. Help was needed in a defense corps that’s led by Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju, and Butcher was a buy-low candidate with whom coach Don Granato has a history.
Granato coached Butcher for two seasons at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2011-13 and served as an assistant coach at multiple international tournaments at which Butcher completed, most recently the IIHF World Championship in 2018. In Butcher, the Sabres added a defenseman whose effective work on the breakout fits nicely with Granato’s preferred style of play, and Butcher is another proven NHL player to help create a culture in the dressing room.
“A lot of familiarity, a lot of respect for him,” Butcher said of Granato. “I was really excited when he got the job and that I’m getting the chance to play for him again. … He loves smart hockey players. He loves playing fast, having the puck and being on the attack. Those are all strengths of my game. That’s why I think that when he was my coach we jelled well together because I think we see the game very similarly.”
Barring any unexpected changes, Butcher likely will handle a second-pairing assignment and he’ll have the opportunity to quarterback the second power-play unit, which has lacked the playmaker that Dahlin is for the Sabres’ top unit. There are plenty of minutes up for grabs, as first overall pick Owen Power, also a left-shot defenseman, opted to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season.
Butcher and his family plan to arrive in Buffalo during the first week of September, providing them with ample time to get acclimated before camp opens. Many expect the Sabres to be near or at the bottom of the standings during another period of transition for the franchise, yet you would never know based on Butcher’s outlook.
“It’s huge motivation for me because I know I belong in this league,” said Butcher. “I know I can play valuable minutes every night. It’s huge motivation for me to prove people wrong about myself and get back out there and have a bounce-back year and just establish myself again. … I’m excited, I’m really motivated and ready to get to Buffalo to get started soon and get after it.”