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Rookie watch: Butcher makes rapid rise with Devils

Hobey Baker winner impresses with seamless transition from NCAA champion to NHL

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Will Butcher can't believe how quickly his NHL rookie season has gone.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound left-handed defenseman has come a long way in just seven months with the New Jersey Devils.

"I always knew I could play in this league," Butcher said. "I had confidence in that. You always dream about playing in the NHL and when it happens it kind of goes by so fast. I just try and take time to reflect and think about how I'm actually here, playing in the NHL, and try to enjoy where I am.

"I relish the fact I get to play with this team."

He's played a vital role and has turned out to be just what Devils general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes envisioned when they signed him to a two-year, entry-level contract on Aug. 27, 2017. Butcher became a free agent after not signing with the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the fifth round (No. 123) of the 2013 NHL Draft.

He's the first Devils player in team history to reach 20 points in his first 30 NHL games.

Video: NJD@PIT: Butcher wires wrister past Murray for PPG

"I remember when Will came for a visit with his father and [Hynes] went through all kinds of video with him on his and our style of game," Shero said. "Will thinks the game so well and (University of Denver coach) Jim Montgomery told us this kid is so much better than people think. He's competitive, a thinker, loves the game and practices the way he plays. He's elusive and takes pride in his defensive game."

Butcher, 23, ranks first among NHL rookie defensemen in assists (34), and power-play points (17), and is second in points (37) behind Mikhail Sergachev (38) of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is tied with Eric Weinrich (1990-91) and Viacheslav Fetisov (1989-90) for most assists by a Devils rookie defenseman.

Butcher missed one game this season, a healthy scratch in a 3-2 overtime win at the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 18. He averages 16:02 in ice time in 74 games.

"Nobody wants to get scratched so I was upset about it, but at the same time I tried to take as much as I could out of it to grow and learn," Butcher said. "I watch video (with assistant coaches) Alain Nasreddine and Geoff Ward quite often, and usually go in and look at my shifts, look at things some other guys around the League are doing and compare it to my game. It's helpful when you can see things, visually."

Butcher is tied for third on the Devils' all-time list among rookie defensemen in power-play points (one goal, 16 assists) with Eric Gelinas (2013-14), and trails Weinrich (1990-91, 20 points) and Scott Niedermayer (1992-93, 19).

Video: NJD@MIN: Butcher roofs a rocket from the circle

"I think he's already is a star in this league," Devils defenseman John Moore said. "I think he's such a smart player. He really never puts himself in tough spots. There's usually a learning curve in this league figuring out how not to expose yourself, but he's bypassed that entirely."

Butcher's impressive rookie campaign comes after helping the University of Denver win the NCAA Division I men's hockey championship with 37 points (seven goals, 30 assists) in 43 games, and winning the 2017 Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top collegiate player.

"He's made a big impact on our team and we're lucky he picked us," Shero said. 

Montgomery said he isn't surprised with how seamless Butcher's transition has been from college rinks to NHL arenas.

"He makes plays in all three zones and has the confidence and belief in his instincts, his hands, and his ability to read the ice and thread the needle to make plays," Montgomery said. "I give coach John Hynes a lot of credit for using Will and bringing him into situations that have enabled his confidence to grow."

Butcher has been paired with veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy much of the season.

"His work on the power play is second to none, but he comes out and plays a consistent game every night," Lovejoy said. "He's very even-tempered off the ice and plays that way when he's out there. He's a quiet guy who has fit in very well in the locker room, is incredibly well-liked and is a huge asset to our team."

At a time when the League is beginning to favor smaller, more elusive puck-moving defensemen over traditional bigger defensemen, Lovejoy said Butcher has found a home. 

"Smaller players at one point in their career had to prove that they belonged, every day, every training camp," Lovejoy said. "Now the game is all about speed, skill and talent. Everybody would love to be 6-foot-4, but it doesn't matter so long as you can play and think the game and Will does that well."

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