Devils Should Hang on to Butcher Despite Regression

It was a tough season for New Jersey Devils’ defenseman, Will Butcher. After finishing with 44 points in 81 games and being named to NHL All-Rookie team in 2017-18, his production has declined in each of the last two seasons. Not only have his point totals fallen off, but his play took a noticeable step back this season from where it was even a year ago. 

There are a few reasons why Butcher’s performance has dropped off. Some of it is on him, and some of it is the product of being in a bad situation. But even though he seems to have regressed, there’s still hope he can turn things around with a fresh start. Here’s a look back at his 2019-20 campaign and where things may be heading next. 

Why Butcher Regressed in 2019-20

To say Butcher struggled for the Devils would be an understatement. Even though his counting totals slipped in 2018-19, he still had the best underlying numbers of any of the team’s defensemen. He finished with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 13.1, as well as a wins above replacement (WAR) of 2.4, both of which ranked third on the team. 

Fast forward to this season, and both those stats had a pretty noticeable decline — his GAR dropped to 4.9, while his WAR fell to 0.9. It’s also worth noting he played in 22 fewer games than he did in 2018-19. But even if the NHL season were to resume after its coronavirus suspension, Butcher would not have been playing in any more games after having thumb surgery

Related: Devils See Notable Progress for Severson

When it comes to impact, Butcher was still having a positive influence on offense. But unlike his first two seasons, his defensive impact was below league average, and it was clear he was struggling when watching him play. He was never the best skater, and it finally seemed to have caught up to him. It was causing problems for him in the defensive zone when in one-on-one situations, as opposing skaters didn’t have much trouble getting past him. 

Will Butcher New Jersey Devils
There are a multitude of reasons for Will Butcher’s dropoff (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But even though Butcher’s defensive play wasn’t the same, the team’s situation didn’t help matters. The Devils were in absolute trainwreck defensively, and it didn’t get better once Alain Nasreddine took over for John Hynes, who was fired by the team on Dec. 3

It also didn’t help that Butcher never had a consistent defense partner. Here are his most common pairings and his five-on-five minutes with each defender: 

  • 116 minutes with Matt Tennyson 
  • 118 minutes with Damon Severson
  • 125 minutes with Connor Carrick
  • 145 minutes with Mirco Mueller 
  • 161 minutes with P.K. Subban

In his first two pro seasons, Butcher and Ben Lovejoy spent over 870 minutes together. They were consistently the team’s third pair and a remarkably useful one at that. Having a constant rotation of five defensemen is a significant and drastic change to go through, and it happened almost overnight. So it’d be a pretty safe bet to assume that hurt his performance. 

Getting Butcher Back on Track

If there’s a Devils’ defenseman who’ll benefit most from a fresh start, it’d be Butcher. And I’m not talking about with another team. Sure, he struggled this season, specifically on defense. But his impact on offense was still positive, and he’s only 25 years old and signed to an affordable contract worth $3.73 million annually through 2021-22. 

Because of those reasons, it isn’t time to give up on him. But the Devils will need to do their part to improve the blue line. For starters, he needs to have a consistent defense partner, as he did with Lovejoy. The team already has two viable defensemen who Butcher’s played with and should be on the team in 2020-21 in Severson and Subban. 

Subban and Butcher have solid numbers together, but both have their fair share of defensive flaws that make them a less than ideal pairing. The best choice, at least from the Devils’ current defenseman, would be to pair him with Severson. He showed plenty of improvement in 2019-20 and was the team’s most defensively sound blueliner, making him an ideal fit for Butcher.

Will Butcher New Jersey Devils
The Devils need to do their part to get Will Butcher back on track (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils’ other option would be to look for outside help. One free agent they could target is Trevor van Riemsdyk, who’s spent the last three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. His game won’t blow anyone away, but he’s a steady third-pair defender who’d be a suitable fit alongside Butcher. And he likely won’t cost much as a free agent. 

Related: Devils Need Subban to Bounce Back

Another defenseman who’d make plenty of sense for the Devils is Dylan DeMelo. His game has always been sound, even when he was with the San Jose Sharks. But he started to gain more attention as a member of the Ottawa Senators, which is why the Winnipeg Jets traded for him at the trade deadline. Like van Riemsdyk, he shouldn’t cost much in free agency and would be a big boost for Butcher too. 

Stability Will Help Butcher

Butcher may have had the worst season of his young career, but the same is true for plenty of Devils. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see his name come up in trade rumors, given his age and contract status. But it would be a mistake for the Devils to move on from him now.

The turmoil the team went through this season didn’t do him any favors. He’ll get a clean slate in 2020-21, and a stable coaching situation should benefit him. Add a revamped blue line that gives him a consistent defense partner, and he should return to being a productive fourth or fifth defenseman. 

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WAR, GAR stats from Evolving Hockey