At first look, Will Butcher doesn’t strike you as a defenseman who instills physical fear in an opponent’s heart.
That’s because he doesn’t.
Likewise, the lighthorse 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from Madison, WI never will be auditioning for the roles of Gulliver, Godzilla, Gargantua or your friendly local Giraffe. Monstrous, he’s not.
But this New Jersey Devils rookie sure can play defense — plus offense — and that explains why his club has a chance to notch a playoff berth … although the Florida Panthers remain in close pursuit.
Will’s two power play assists galvanized a dramatic come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night at Prudential Center.
The victory thrusts the Devils right into momentum mode which continues at The Rock on Thursday when defending champion Pittsburgh visits Newark.
“The way Butcher plays,” said ex-NHLer-turned Devils radio analyst Chico Resch, “it’s all about brain work. He’s one of the smartest rookie defensemen I’ve ever seen.”
With the Penguins next in line, a comparison between Butcher and the visitors’ cerebral Kris Letang will be inevitable.
One of the best comparison critics is Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy, Letang’s teammate on the 2016 Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning sextet.
“For young defensemen like Will,” said Lovejoy, “this game can be difficult. But he’s succeeded coming out of college with no minor league experience and shows he belongs.”
Before Butcher’s signing with the Garden Staters last Summer, the 23-year-old University of Denver graduate had become the first Wisconsin-born player to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as America’s top collegiate player.
Which was all well and good, but offered no guarantees that he could simply segue as a starting defender on a once-struggling team that now has magnetized attention. But he’s succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations.
“To play in the NHL,” Butcher noted, “I knew I needed a complete game because everybody is good offensively. If I couldn’t play defensively, I knew I was not going to be able to play.”
Will Butcher tells his tale of reaching the NHL, from his small-town roots to the moment he knew he was finally in the pros.
That Devils general manager Ray Shero was able to get Will to willingly sign a contract was monumental considering that Butcher originally had been plucked by Colorado in the 2013 draft.
But he nixed the Avalanche for one very good reason called John Hynes. New Jersey’s head coach had a system appealing to Will where he could get support on the back end and play to his strengths.
Butcher: “I was looking for the right organizational fit; where I could see myself growing a career. Hynes hit a home run on a lot of that stuff. I liked his demeanor, his attitude, where he wants to take the team. I felt I needed to be a part of that.”
Will spends considerable time with the club’s defensive coach Alain Nasreddine, who breaks down video with the freshman. Nasreddine has been a solid sounding board, but it’s the head coach who counts most.
“What I like,” said Hynes, “is Will’s ability to move the puck so well. His instincts are good and he has the knack for delivering the puck to the net.”
That point has been underlined after 74 games during which Will has become, by far, the Devils’ top scoring defenseman with 39 points.
“Butcher is a gifted passer and an excellent power play quarterback,” explained Leo Scaglione Jr. who is an occasional New Jersey prospect reporter on MSG Networks Devils telecasts. “He sees the ice very well and is good with his hands.”
Asked to pinpoint his most valuable asset, Will points to his brain. “I can think the game pretty well. I use my hockey sense — my I.Q. — to make plays quicker than what they happen. I study things before we play and use my smarts in situations.”
Which explains why you won’t see Will skating Willy-Nilly all over the ice. It’s why Butcher guided the University of Denver to the collegiate championship tallying seven goals and 30 assists in 43 games.
It didn’t hurt that he was mentored by Denver’s storied hockey coach Jim Montgomery who told Shero that Butcher was “so much better than people think.” Pride in his defensive game is one of Will’s fortes.
He lists Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie as the most challenging foes to defend against.
“The top end guys are so good. Matter of fact, I learn a lot just from watching them even when I’m not skating against them.”
For much of the season, Butcher has been paired with Lovejoy although on Tuesday night, against the Hurricanes, his partner was Mirco Mueller. Will insists that Hynes’ system makes it easy to rotate partners.
Once he decided to nix an Avalanche deal, Will — plus his father and agent — auditioned a few clubs but was captivated by Hynes’ pitch.
Jim Montgomery: “I give Hynes a lot of credit for using Will and bringing him into situations that have enabled his confidence to grow.”
Growth came fast; quicker than most thought. He became the first Devil in team history to collect 20 points in his first 30 NHL games.
In time, he ranked first among NHL rookie defensemen in assists and power play points. What’s more, he’s impressed former Devils D-men such as MSG Networks New Jersey analyst Bryce Salvador with his cool, calm, collected game.
“What really strikes me most,” said Salvador, “is his poise. He never gets frustrated when he makes a mistake. In fact, it’s almost like he reflects on it. Plus, it’s rare to see Will make the same mistake twice.
“You always hear him say, ‘Maybe I’m not the fastest D-man, but I’m one of the fastest thinkers in processing the situation. That’s my skill set; my asset and what I rely on.’ I definitely see that in him.”
Finding a way to win has become the Devils mantra in this melodramatic homestretch, yet Hynes’ stickhandlers are handling the pressure with aplomb — especially the Butcher Boy.
“Riding the waves even-keeled is how is he’s surviving as a defenseman,” Salvador asserted. “It’s part of the reason why the Devils have been able to rely on him.”
The Maven calls Butcher “the meat of the Devils’ defense.”
To which Hynes punctuated, “Butcher has grown in every area.”
On Thursday, the team and Will’s individual growth both can mature even more — closer to that magnetic post-season berth!
As some sage could have said about Butcher, where there’s a Will there’s a way!
THOUGHTS ON BUTCHER:
TAYLOR HALL: He’s such a good puck mover. He really shows a lot of deception while he’s out there, he thinks one or two plays ahead and when you have that influence at the top of your power play, it really settles the whole group down so Hynesy made a switch mid-game and you saw how it affected our power play. It’s great to see him chip in on a couple goals.
JOHN HYNES: Will’s done a very good job on the power play. We knew what type of player Will was going to be coming in and to the player’s credit, when you put him in situations he’s moved the puck very well, he’s been very effective on the power play. When there are opportunities to make plays, even five-on-five he does a very good job of that and you saw those things tonight. On the other side of it, some of it was just adjusting to the pace and the competitive level to defend at the NHL level. But we knew about his hockey smarts, how coachable he is and how he’s willing to learn and those things continue to get better.
ANDY GREENE: He’s been great. He’s been really good on the puck and making smart plays with it and dishing it out. There’s no panic in his game under pressure and it’s nice to see.