NEWARK, N.J. - After the Devils lost defensemen Dmitry Kulikov (trade) and Sami Vatanen (waiver) last weekend, it created openings on the backend. It also created opportunity.
For 26-year-old Will Butcher, opportunity is getting a chance to play, something he hasn't done much of this season with just 10 games under his belt and a stretch of 19 straight games as a scratch.
"It's definitely mentally fatiguing. You're looking to play, maybe get into a back-to-back or whatever the case may be, it doesn't happen for a little while," Butcher said. "It's definitely mentally fatiguing. I tried to stay ready, put my work in practice and when I get my opportunities make the most of it."
Video: PRE-GAME RAW | Will Butcher 4.15.21
Butcher now has his chance to make the most of it and show the Devils coaching staff and management what he can do.
"I just want to be consistent, bring energy," he said, "compete every play, every battle and show that I can help this team every night."
Butcher (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) has never experienced such a drought of play in his entire hockey life, and that includes going back to his four-year University of Denver career. He called it "a new experience for me."
The Wisconsin native had a decorated college career that included receiving the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player. He was a highly-sought after free agent and signed with the Devils. Butcher had a breakout rookie season with 44 points (5G-39A) in 81 games. But his next two seasons were up-and-down as the team went through a rebuilding phase.
Butcher was looking to re-establish himself in 2020-21, but the start of his season was delayed by a COVID-19 diagnosis. He made his season debut Feb. 16. After appearing in eight of 11 games, Butcher would be out for the next 19. Before getting back into the lineup April 11, his last game had been March 6 - an entire month-plus lapse.
Butcher, who went hard in practices, morning skates and pre-game warm-ups to stay ready, is now trying to find his game shape.
"Earlier in the year when I got to play a little bit it took a couple games. Just having that mindset now, I felt pretty good," he said. "I'm just trying to take that forward and get into it. It's more how the game's going and how you're prepared and how you're playing in that game to get you into a rhythm."
But Butcher, who is signed through the 2021-22 season, isn't just adjusting to game speed and finding his timing. He's also adjusting to playing on his off-side. Because the Devils blue line has four left-handed players, one of them had to flip to play the right side. Butcher, who played some right D in Denver, has taken that task.
"I know I can do it," he said. "A little bit of a learning curve, but I feel comfortable doing it.
"The biggest thing for me personally is the offensive zone, grabbing pucks off the wall when they're coming up to me at the blue line. Reaching across my body with my backhand. It creates a little more struggle when that comes."
In the defensive zone, Butcher will need a lot of communication with his defensive partner Jonas Siegenthaler.
"It creates an issue, but that's just knowing that you're in that position already," he said. "It's having the mindset before you get the puck to make that play, what you want to do with it, how you want to receive it. Also talking with (Siegenthaler) where I want the puck when he passes it to me and plays it up the wall. It's a lot of just preparing. It's different, but it's manageable."
Whether he's playing the left side or the right side, Butcher is just happy to get another chance to play.
"For me it hasn't gone my way in terms of getting in the lineup at the beginning of the season," he said. "I'm getting a chance here. I'm going to have to go out and prove what I can do in the NHL and what I can do for a team. That's what I'm looking for when I'm playing in these games and trying to contribute in any way possible."