The New Jersey Devils took care of some housekeeping yesterday as they re-signed restricted free agent Will Butcher to a three-year deal with a cap of $3.73 million. In doing so, the two sides avoided arbitration, which was scheduled to take place tomorrow.
The 24-year-old defenseman is a big part of the team’s future and signed a more-than-reasonable new contract. But general manager Ray Shero missed an opportunity to get more value by not handing out a longer-term agreement.
Butcher’s Rise with the Devils
There was a time where Butcher wasn’t even part of the Devils’ plans. He was originally a fifth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche but chose not to sign with them after his NCAA career came to a close. In doing so, he became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Devils in Aug. 2017.
He immediately became a fixture on the blue line and had a stellar rookie season, finishing with 44 points in 81 games. He dominated at five-on-five, although while playing soft minutes, and was a force on the power play. It culminated with the Devils making the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12.
His second pro season did not go as well, but it wasn’t as bad as some may think. His counting totals slipped, but his underlying stats were still pretty impressive. He had a goals above replacement (GAR) of 9.8, which shows how many goals he added to the team relative to a replacement-level player. His five-on-five expected goals for percentage (xGF%) was 52.24%, ranked fifth on the team.
When combined with his rookie season, Butcher’s stats remain impressive, specifically on offense. He’s had a positive impact on offensive shot attempts, expected goals, and goals scored. However, his impact on defensive shot attempts and expected goals is minimal, so his defensive game has yet to come along.
While his defense may need work, he excels in other areas. He exits the defensive zone with puck possession efficiently and is a high-end passer. It also helps that he can contribute on the power play, but that could change with the addition of P.K. Subban.
What Will His Role Be?
The Devils have a formidable group of right-handed defensemen with Subban, Sami Vatanen, and Damon Severson, but it’s the opposite on the left side. Andy Greene has been a top-four defenseman for a long time, but those days are drawing to a close. Ty Smith is the team’s top prospect on defense, but he primarily played the right side in the WHL.
That leaves the door open for Butcher to get a more prominent role. Based on the current roster, there’s a good chance Vatanen plays on his weak side with Subban. That could mean Butcher starts things off with Severson, and they’ve had success over the last two seasons — they’ve played 336 minutes together at five-on-five and have a 51.98 xGF%.
It also wouldn’t be unreasonable to see him get a shot with Subban, at least during the preseason. He has the best underlying stats of any of the team’s defensemen since he came into the league. And Subban is the type of player that could help him improve upon his defensive game. It may not be a perfect match, but it doesn’t hurt to experiment.
It’s also probably fair to assume that he’ll see a drop in his power-play minutes. Subban is one of the top power-play quarterbacks in the league, and I don’t think Butcher will get that spot on the first unit over him. He’ll most likely get minutes with the second wave, but it could be much less than what he earned during his first two seasons.
A Long-Term Deal Was the Way to Go
When his deal expires, Butcher will be 27 years old, which means he’ll become an unrestricted free agent (UFA). In doing so, it means the Devils didn’t buy any of his UFA years. That most likely helped keep his cap hit below $4 million, but that may hurt them in the long run.
If he returns to his rookie form consistently, he’ll be looking for much more money three years from now. Subban’s $9 million cap hit comes off the books at that time. But Jack Hughes, Jesper Boqvist, and Smith could all be coming off their entry-level contracts, too. And they could be up for significant raises, especially Hughes.
It would’ve helped to have Butcher under contract when that happens. And giving him an extra couple of years probably wouldn’t have raised his cap hit that much. Going off Evolving Wild’s contract projections, a five-year deal would’ve paid him $4.1 million annually. That’s a fair price given his results, and even $4.5 million per year would’ve been fine.
At the same time, there’s a reason Shero may have preferred a bridge deal. Butcher isn’t a defensive liability, but he still has something to prove there. He’s fared well with soft minutes, but can he thrive with more responsibility? Time will tell, but he’s going to get that chance in 2019-20.
The Devils didn’t sign him to a bad contract, not by any stretch. And his cap hit of $3.73 million is probably below his value. With that said, Shero would’ve been wise to give him some more years, even if it meant a higher cap hit. Instead, they may have to pay up when he’s 27 when they could’ve had him signed through his prime UFA years at a fair price. And that could be something they regret when the time comes.
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