Will Butcher got the puck at the blue line near the boards on the left side. He skated and stickhandled a little more than halfway across the ice before sending a pass toward the lower right corner for Kyle Palmieri, and as the puck went that way, two Capitals penalty killers followed to try to close out the play, with the other two staying in the slot.
This was perfect for the Devils, because Taylor Hall was all alone on the left side of the ice - the closest skater to him was referee Jon McIsaac. By the time Washington goalie Braden Holtby slid to his right to cover the shooting angle, the puck was in the back of the net. Hall's first goal of the season was one of eight assists racked up by Butcher in the first five games of the season, a Devils record.
"He's got a lot of skill, he moves the puck well, and he's so smart out there," Hall said. "That's why we signed him, and that's why he was so highly regarded. He's brought a lot to our power play and our 5-on-5. We need that on our back end. We need guys who move the puck and provide offense and jump in, and it's great to see quality this early."
Hall doesn't just mean early in the season, of course, but also early in Butcher's career. The 22-year-old defenseman is a rookie this season, four years after he was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche. Rather than go pro, though, Butcher played four years of college hockey at the University of Denver, became a free agent, and signed with the Devils in August.
As a senior, Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey, and helped Denver win the NCAA title. In the NHL, Butcher has not missed a beat, stepping right in and quarterbacking the Devils' power play. In five games, New Jersey is 6-for-22 with the man advantage, with Butcher assisting on five of the goals.
"The power play plays into all the strengths of my game - seeing the ice, trying to make plays, using the skill set that I have," Butcher said. "I was on the power play for all four years in college, and I've gone through reps in practice and seen plays, and you kind of get to know how a power play moves and flows. My four years at Denver played huge in that development in my game."
Another thing that Butcher developed with the Pioneers was his strength. While he stopped growing as a high school freshman, and at 5-10 and 190 pounds is on the small side for an NHL defenseman, Butcher credits the training staff at Denver with helping him to work on his balance, utilizing his low center of gravity.
"He might not be one of the bigger guys, but he's so incredibly smart in terms of his body positioning and his stick and how he's able to use banks and strip guys of pucks," said Devils defenseman John Moore. "It's really remarkable to see a young player come in and be as seamless as he has been for us."
Butcher being as solid as he has been defensively to start his NHL career is arguably a bigger surprise than piling up assists and running a hot power play with relative ease. On the offensive side of the puck, plays have to be made quicker at the NHL level, but working with open ice is working with open ice no matter where you are. Holding your own against speeding, hulking, grown men is an entirely different challenge - one that Butcher has handled.
"He's got some gifts you can see offensively, but he cares about the other side of the puck," Devils coach John Hynes said. "He works at it, and he's very smart, so he hasn't been a liability for us on defense at all."
The Devils have sheltered Butcher a bit at even strength, preferring to get him on the ice for offensive zone faceoffs, but that makes sense given his acumen with the puck. Even considering that, Butcher's possession numbers have been solid to start his career, and he's plus-5 after five games. In fact, he hasn't been on the ice for a goal against.
"It was an eye opener the first couple of games, and I'll keep growing as the games go on," Butcher said. "It's managing your ice in front of you and looking at who's out on the ice, keeping tight gaps. If you do all those things right, you can play well defensively in this league.