Will Butcher, College Hockey's Top Player, Is NHL Free Agent After Not Signing With Avalanche

Defenseman Will Butcher is attracting plenty of interest on his first day as an NHL free agent since college hockey's top player turned down an opportunity to sign with the Colorado Avalanche.

The former University of Denver player had discussions with five teams on Wednesday, the player's agent Stephen Bartlett wrote in a text to The Associated Press. And, Bartlett added, he's scheduled to have talks with more teams over the next couple of days.

Bartlett wouldn't reveal the entire list of teams, but did confirm he's had discussions with the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The three teams were first mentioned in a report published by The Denver Post.

The Avalanche selected Butcher in the fifth round of the 2013 draft and had until Tuesday to sign the Hobey Baker Award winner, who led Denver to a national championship in April.

Butcher's decision will come down to which team he considers the best fit rather than contract terms. Teams are restricted to signing him to a two-year contract with a maximum annual salary of $925,000.

In a statement released Wednesday by the Avalanche, the team said it made Butcher a maximum offer in April. ''He wanted to test the market and that is his right and decision,'' the Avalanche said.

The 22-year-old from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, capped his senior season at Denver with seven goals and a team-high 30 assists in 43 games and became just the seventh defenseman to win college hockey's top honor. Overall, he had 28 goals and 75 assists for 103 points in 158 games with the Pioneers.

Butcher becomes the second consecutive Hobey Baker winner to pursue free agency after completing his college career.

Last summer, Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey turned down contract offers from Nashville and Buffalo before signing with the New York Rangers , for whom he had 16 goals and 27 points in 80 games. Nashville drafted Vesey and traded his rights to the Sabres once it became clear he wasn't going to sign with the Predators.


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Will Butcher Believes He is Ready to Play for the Devils Right Now

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) Will Butcher believes he is ready to play for the New Jersey Devils right now.

A day after signing a two-year, $1.85 million contract with the rebuilding Devils, the 22-year-old Butcher said he was ready to make the jump from being college hockey's top player to the NHL without a stop in the minor leagues.

Speaking on a conference call, the defenseman said he chose to sign with New Jersey because he felt good after meeting coach John Hynes and he thought the Devils' up-tempo system best fit his game.

Butcher was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 at the Prudential Center - the Devils' home rink. He became a free agent on Aug. 15 after failing to reach an agreement with Colorado, although the former University of Denver player said he knew by May he intended to test the free agent market.

After meeting with a number of teams, his decision came down to the Devils, Las Vegas, Buffalo and Los Angeles.

''It seemed like a great fit in how I wanted to play, and they saw me being in a better role with what they wanted to do there,'' Butcher said of choosing New Jersey. ''It kind of reminded me a little bit of how we were going to play with my college hockey.''

Butcher knows there will be competition to make the Devils' roster with veteran defensemen Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore and Brian Strait and youngsters Damon Severson, Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller on the roster.

''I think my game is NHL ready,'' Butcher said. ''I think there is always stuff to learn and to pick up. That's mostly the reason why I chose New Jersey, because I felt with coach Hynes (there) was the development and how they cater to guys and help you get ready for the NHL game.''

Butcher described himself as an offensive defenseman who can play defense.

''I am definitely more offensive than defensive,'' he said. ''I try to cater to my game in the sense of making smart decisions with the puck, joining the rush at the right opportunity and using my experience to help me play in the league that I want to play in.''

When asked what players would have a similar style to him he named Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks, Torey Krug of the Bruins and Greene.

''If I was fortunate to make the big team, he would be a great mentor to me, just because he does everything,'' Butcher said of Greene. ''He penalty kills, power play, all situations. He is a smart player, not necessarily the biggest guy, but he uses his abilities to defend well and play the game of hockey.''

Butcher could also help the Devils' power play, especially feeding the likes of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson and newcomer Nico Hischier, the Swiss-born center who was the No. 1 pick in the June draft.

''I might not be the fastest guy or biggest guy out there, but I like to pride myself that I think fast and use my brain to be fast, in a sense that I try to anticipate plays and just try to use my hockey smarts to help me be effective,'' Butcher said.

Besides helping Denver win the national championship this past season, Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player.

A Wisconsin resident, Butcher had seven goals and a team-high 30 assists in 43 games last season. He had 28 goals and 75 assists for 103 points in 158 games with the Pioneers.

Best: Adam Oates

A brilliantly creative playmaker, Oates was originally signed by Detroit in 1985 and went on to become the set-up man who keyed Brett Hull to three consecutive seasons of 70-plus goals in St. Louis. Oates then moved on to Boston, where he helped Cam Neely to three years as a 50-goal man. He ranks seventh on the NHL's all-time assist list with 1,079.

Worst: Drew Leblanc

The 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner arrived in Chicago with a reputation as an elite playmaker but he lasted just two games with the Blackhawks before being relegated to the AHL. Leblanc spent two undistinguished seasons in Rockford before moving on to the German League.

Best: Blake Wheeler

Using the same clause that allowed Jimmy Vesey to become a UFA out of college, Wheeler spurned the Phoenix Coyotes to sign with the Boston Bruins in 2008. Traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011, he's since matured into an outstanding leader and a top scorer with the franchise since its relocation to Winnipeg.

Worst: Jarod Palmer

A star forward at Miami of Ohio, Palmer was rated the top college free agent of 2010 by Red Line Report. Lingering injuries and a lack of finish conspired against him, limiting him to just six games and one goal in the NHL before he retired in 2013.

Best: Ed Belfour

Expectations were high for Belfour, who signed as a free agent after leading North Dakota to a national championship 1987. He did not disappoint. The Eagle spent seven seasons in Chicago, picking up a pair of Vezina trophies before moving on to Dallas where he won the Stanley Cup in 1999. He won 484 games during his career, ranking third on the all-time list, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Worst: Matt Gilroy

Gilroy seemed to be the complete package when he signed out of Boston University. At 6' 2", 200 pounds, he was a smooth-skating, puck-moving defender and a Hobey Baker winner, prompting the Blueshirts to sign the 24-year-old to a lucrative two-year, $3.5 million deal. He went on to play 225 games for four different NHL clubs, but never managed to move beyond the third pair. Out of NHL options, he eventually shuffled off to the KHL.

Best: Joe Mullen

The Boston College star was a victim of the NHL's anti-American bias at the draft but made an immediate impact as a free agent, scoring 25 goals in his rookie season of 1981-82. He went on to become the first American to score 500 goals and 1,000 points in the NHL, blazing a trail for the next generation of U.S.-born stars.

Worst: Stephane Da Costa

The French-born center led the Merrimack Warriors in each of his first two college seasons, inspiring the Ottawa Senators to outbid 20 teams sign the top-rated free agent to a two-year deal. But Da Costa's puck skills and creativity failed to impress over four seasons and 47 games in the NHL, so he moved on to the KHL where he had some success.

Best: Dan Boyle

The NHL valued size over skill when Boyle was starring at Miami of Ohio, but the Panthers liked his numbers (94 points in 77 games during his junior/senior seasons) and gave him a chance in the minors. He eventually was moved to Tampa Bay where he became a two-time All-Star and a 2004 Stanley Cup winner.

Worst: Ray Staszak, Chris Cichocki, Dale Krentz

Starving for talent, the Red Wings went on an epic college free agent shopping spree in the summer of 1985, highlighted by the signing of Staszak to a four-year, $1.4 million deal, the richest rookie contract in NHL history. He went on to play just four NHL games before being sent down, getting injured and calling it quits, assuring himself a place in hockey history as the greatest UFA bust of all time. Cichocki and Krentz hardly fared better, lasting just 68 and 30 games, respectively.