By Steve Lichtenstein
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Forget what I wrote a month ago about the NHL loophole that allows previously drafted but unsigned U.S. college players to become unrestricted free agents on Aug. 15 of the year they graduate.
You know, the one that cost the Devils center Alexander Kerfoot, a 2012 fifth-rounder who blossomed at Harvard only to opt to sign with Colorado last week. The one that seemingly allows the rival Rangers to re-stock with talented young players like Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, minimizing the loss of their traded draft picks.
All because this NHL rule allows for the undermining of the draft process. In the three other major sports, drafted players who choose not to sign can only re-enter a future draft.
Well, since turnabout is fair play, none of my previous objections are going to get in the way of smiling upon the Devils’ victory in the Will Butcher derby on Sunday. New Jersey announced it signed the 22-year-old defenseman to a two-year entry level contract for the maximum $925,000 AAV. He can also earn an additional $850,000 in annual performance bonuses, according to Andrew Gross of The Record.
In a further gift of irony, Butcher’s prior rights belonged to the Avs, courtesy of, you guessed it, a fifth-round selection in the 2013 draft.
If this were a one-for-one trade, the Devils are better off with Butcher over Kerfoot.
The University of Denver product, who succeeded Vesey by winning the 2017 Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top college hockey player, fills a glaring hole on the Devils’ back line.
The scouting reports indicate that Butcher is a gifted puck-mover who can develop into a power play quarterback. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he is a bit undersized, but he plays a sound positional game and uses his skating and passing edges to his advantage.
“I might not be the fastest guy or biggest guy out there, but I like to pride myself that I think fast and use my brain to be fast, in a sense that I try to anticipate plays and just try to use my hockey smarts to help me be effective,” Butcher told reporters during a conference call on Monday.
Several experts expect the left-handed shooting Butcher to immediately slide into the third pair with Steven Santini.
In fact, Butcher said he thinks he can make the Devils roster immediately.
“I think my game is NHL ready,” Butcher said. “I think there is always stuff to learn and to pick up. That’s mostly the reason why I chose New Jersey, because I felt with coach (John) Hynes (there) was the development and how they cater to guys and help you get ready for the NHL game.”
The Butcher signing is a huge coup for Devils general manager Ray Shero. Since money is often not much of an issue due to the collective bargaining limits of this four-year college rule, Shero needed to persuade Butcher to choose New Jersey by outmaneuvering several other, um, more desirable markets such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh (in addition to, reportedly, Buffalo and Columbus).
“It seemed like a great fit in how I wanted to play, and they saw me being in a better role with what they wanted to do there,” Butcher said of choosing the Devils. “It kind of reminded me a little bit of how we were going to play with my college hockey.”
Butcher said he “hit it off” immediately with Hynes, who is highly regarded in NHL circles when it comes to developing young players. He also said he “felt compelled to be a part of” a program in which he could grow his game alongside the club’s many top prospects.
Veteran players have tended to use New Jersey as a destination of last resort. Hence, the Devils’ past free agent signings usually leaned towards the likes of Lee Stempniak, Vern Fiddler, and, this offseason, Brian Boyle and Drew Stafford.
Shero may have struck out in his attempt to lure the marquee talents in July’s NHL unrestricted free agent market, but he did have a fairly successful summer.
The Devils won the 2017 Entry Draft lottery to nab center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall selection and then traded extraneous draft picks to Washington to obtain skilled winger Marcus Johansson. Boyle and Stafford (plus Jimmy Hayes on a professional tryout) give the Devils a veteran presence.
The only loss of significance was the devastating injury news to center Travis Zajac, who will miss four-to-six months following his surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
The Devils still are about $16 million under the league’s salary cap with all of their own free agents signed except for defenseman Damon Severson, who is restricted. Shero has previously stated that he expects Severson’s new deal to be completed in time for training camp.
Unfortunately, all that money hadn’t helped Shero upgrade his inadequate defense corps before Butcher’s signing. The Devils traded for Marco Mueller, a busted prospect in San Jose, and inked Yaroslav Dyblenko out of Russia’s KHL. Both are on two-way deals.
Butcher’s contract, by a different rule, is also two-way, but it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be able to break through into this NHL lineup.
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