Will Butcher said his decision to agree to a two-year, entry-level contract with the New Jersey Devils on Sunday came down to the direction of the organization and the influence of coach John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero.
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There were other suitors for Butcher, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA Division I men's hockey in 2016-17 and decided in the middle of May he was not going to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, the team that selected him in the fifth round (No. 123) of the 2013 NHL Draft. The tipping point was Hynes, who reminded him of Jim Montgomery, his coach at the University of Denver.
Butcher, 22, admitted he's not the biggest (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) or fastest player but said he prides himself on being a cerebral defenseman, one who uses his hockey smarts to be a step quicker than his opponent and execute plays in his head before they actually occur. It's one of many reasons why Butcher and Denver won the NCAA national championship last season, and he said it's why he clicked with Hynes and was soon sold on the Devils.
"I think he's a strong hockey mind and a strong coach, and it seemed like a great fit on how I want to play," Butcher said Monday.
Butcher's decision wasn't made overnight. He savored being a national champion for a week or two before considering his future. His decision to not sign with the Avalanche and become a college free agent Aug. 15 wasn't easy because he loved playing in Denver, a city that fits his lifestyle as an outdoorsman. But after speaking with his family and advisers, he felt it was in his best interest to test the open market.
Video: Will Butcher talks new contract with Devils
Besides the Devils, Butcher confirmed he visited the Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights.
"They're all great organizations, and I couldn't have made a bad pick in any one of them," said Butcher, whose contract has a $925,000 average annual value. "It was kind of whirlwind. It was hard to focus on what really mattered, which was training and getting back to skating. That's why it took my decision longer to make … staying focused to what got me there in the first place. Going to New Jersey, I thought it was the best fit for me as a player to grow and develop, not just for two years but long-term wise too."
The challenge for Butcher is to make the Devils out of training camp, which opens Sept. 14, and help them reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. He should see plenty of time on a power play that was 22nd in the League last season (17.5 percent). Restricted free agent Damon Severson led New Jersey defensemen with 13 power-play points. Behind him was captain Andy Greene (four).
That's where Butcher, who led Denver with 18 power-play points last season, can climb the depth chart and contribute immediately.
"I'm going to have to be ready to go out of camp," said Butcher, a lefty who played his final two collegiate seasons on the right and is open to doing the same with the Devils. "I think I can bring my brain and my smarts into the mix, help make great passes, set guys up, and give them more time and space to make plays. Coach Hynes said he liked my deception as a player. I think it can get better and I think he can help me with that, taking a shot, giving a guy an extra second to make a play.
"I think my game is NHL-ready. I think there's always stuff to learn and to pick up. That's mostly the reason why I chose New Jersey. I thought that Coach Hynes and how they cater to the guys and help them get ready for the NHL game … it was very appealing to me to talk about that kind of stuff. They're going to put me in places to succeed rather than throw me right into the fire of the NHL because it's the best league in the world."
Video: The guys discuss Will Butcher heading to the Devils
Butcher will arrive to New Jersey on Saturday to begin preparing for training camp before heading to Buffalo for the Prospects Challenge from Sept. 8-11, the first steps to helping the Devils improve from a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference (28-40-14, 70 points).
New Jersey had a busy offseason that started with winning the NHL Draft Lottery on April 29. The Devils chose center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft on June 23, acquired forward Marcus Johansson in a trade from the Washington Capitals on July 2, and signed veteran free agent forwards Brian Boyle (July 1) and Drew Stafford (Aug. 25).
"You look at the depth chart on the front end, not just the back end, and you're like, man, these guys are really good," Butcher said. "They're going to be good for a couple of years to come. I think that's a credit to Mr. Shero, just how he articulates himself to make deals at the right time without overextending himself.
"That's another reason it was attractive to come play for New Jersey, just because of him and how he deals with things. It's kind of hard not to choose to go and play for an organization like that. They're set up to succeed not only for the near future, but down the road as well."