Published by hockeybuzz.com, 8-20-2017
The photo of free agent defenseman Will Butcher walking through Denver International Airport with the Sabres logo on a blue duffel bag sent waves of optimism rolling through Sabreland. The former captain of the NCAA Hockey Champion Denver Pioneers was returning to Denver after a tour of possible NHL destinations with Buffalo being amongst the first suitors he talked to.
Butcher became a free agent at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday and began his tour of NHL clubs with stops in Buffalo, New Jersey and Las Vegas with the expansion Golden Knights. He reportedly also had interviews with Pittsburgh, Columbus and Detroit, among other teams. All teams are on equal financial footing as the 2017 Hobey Baker winner will end up signing at the same entry-level salary and term with maxed-out performance-related bonuses of up to $2.85 million, so Butcher is mulling through other factors before he decides upon his hockey home.
Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery has been keeping in touch with Butcher through the process and he told me over the phone this afternoon that the young man is feeling a bit exhausted after touring NHL cities. "He's been pretty wiped out by what's been going on," said the coach. "He texted me after one of the visits and said let's talk on Monday."
"It's a lot of mental energy," continued Montgomery, who played parts of five seasons in the NHL covering 122 games. "He really has to be paying attention so that he's making the best choice for himself."
The 5'10" 190 lb. defenseman is a bit small by NHL standards but it hasn't been a deterrent for NHL clubs considering the way the game is played today. Butcher was able to work through that using his brains during a college career that featured many larger frames. Montgomery said that Butcher should never be confused with someone that "will go into the corner and physically outmuscle a [powerforward], as he knows he's gonna lose those battles. But he's going to use leverage, intelligence amd a good stick. And when he gets that puck, it takes him a half-second to make a great transition pass."
Montgomery knows Butcher quite well having first coached him in the USHL for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010-11, when the kid from Sun Prarie, WI was a 15 yr. old. The Fighting Saints had suffered a rash of injuries on the blueline and Butcher was asked to join the team. In his first game with Dubuque, Butcher impressed to the point where Montgomery used him on the second powerplay unit. He had two assists in the game and "if he would have stayed on our team," said the coach, "he would have ended up on our first power play unit with Zemgus Girgensons and Johnny Gadreau."
What stood out for Montgomery in those two games, and what he mentioned right off the bat when talking about first impressions, was Butcher's "elite hockey sense, the ability to make elite passes in all three zones and his poise with the puck" and it's something that Montgomery would see in him throughout his career in Denver. "When he gets the puck, you can't teach what he does. It doesn't matter which zone, when the puck touches his stick it's going to be a positive for the team."
Offensive came easier for Butcher than defense, although he still had plenty to learn in that area. Early on and some of the things Montgomery said Butcher needed to work on from a defensive standpoint was his gap-control. "When I got him as a freshman here (in Denver,)" said the coach, "that's when I noticed [that] as well as his angles and being aggressive in his pursuit and taking away time and space with good angle."
But Butcher, who soaks in knowledge, was able to make year-over-year progress in those areas to the point where he was the key defenseman in Denver's championship run last season.
The biggest knock on Butcher when it comes to a transition to the NHL seems to be directed at his skating, something that Montgomery doesn't see as much of a problem heading into the pros. "I don't see his skating as a weakness," said the coach, "he just needs to get adjusted to that speed coming at him at the NHL-level."
Montgomery explained that the system he employed at Denver predicates itself on defensemen attacking which plays into Butcher's strength of forward-skating. It's something that we are seeing more and more hockey and it happens to be something Sabres coach Phil Housley employed when he was coaching the defense for the Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators.
Housley is a legend in U.S. Hockey and a Hall-of-Fame player that the youngins are very aware of including those on the Pioneers. Montgomery, who played with Housley in St. Louis as a rookie in 1993-94, deploys his defense in a very similar fashion to the way Housley did with the Preds.
"A lot of the stuff they did in Nashville with their defensemen, especially in the offensive zone," said the coach, "was very similar to what we do and I think it plays into Will's greatest strengths. [His] greatest ability is his hockey sense. When he goes in to support the offense, the risk/reward, whether in the offensive zone or on the rush, he's analyzed full possession, he knows where the hole is and he's not giving up odd-man rushes the other way. If he sees any opportunity for offense, he goes. But if he sees the chance for turnover, he's not putting himself in that situation.
"The reward with his decision-making is very high."
Sounds like a good match for both Butcher and the Sabres, but we won't know until probably the middle to latter part of this coming week where he will end up. Buffalo is in some stiff competition with some pretty good organizations, but there are some positives for the team moving forward.
There are some Buffalo connections at work here as well. In 2012-13 Butcher played on a team with fellow 2013 Sabres draft pick Sean Malone and Hudson Fasching another 2013 draft pick whom the Sabres traded for. Also on that team was a 16 yr. old by the name of Jack Eichel, who was playing above his age group. All of them also played on the silver medal winning U.S. U-18 team in 2013. And Butcher's home of Sun Prarie is about 2 1/2 hours away from Eau Claire, WI, hometown to Buffalo's Jake McCabe.
The big thing for Butcher seems to be the right fit, and after spending time talking with Montgomery about Butcher the player, the Sabres with Housley at the helm looks to be as good an organizational fit as any other team.
But will he see it that way?