After having come up short in several previous NCAA free agent sweepstakes, it came as quite a shock when 2017 Hobey Baker Award recipient Will Butcher agreed to sign with the New Jersey Devils. The 22-year old defenseman was originally drafted 123rd overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013, and spent the last four seasons playing for the University of Denver. At the very least, New Jersey acquired a highly-touted prospect who (at most) might need mild seasoning in the AHL before becoming a permanent fixture on the Devils roster. While his upside is undeniable, there’s no way to guarantee Butcher is primed to begin a fulltime NHL career that spans over several seasons.
Chris Ryan of the Star Ledger just wrote an article that looked at how recent Hobey Baker winners have fared in the NHL. While he mentioned names like Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, and Jimmy Vesey that make the aspect of acquiring the 2017 Hobey Baker Award recipient all the more encouraging, Ryan’s article included award winners of all positions dating back to 2005. One takeaway worth pointing out is only three Hobey Baker recipients (Eichel, Gaudreau, Vesey) are presently active in the league. If he establishes himself with the Devils, Butcher will be the only active Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman currently in the NHL.
Despite being a rarity, the last four defensemen to win the Hobey Baker Award have all fared differently in the NHL. The chart below maps out the careers and statistical totals of those blue liners.
|Player||HB Winner||NHL Seasons||GP||Goals||Points|
While some Devils fans might remember Mike Mottau’s stint in New Jersey, the two biggest standouts above are Jordan Leopold and Matt Carle. Both defensemen had admirable careers, but neither was ever considered a star-caliber asset.
It’s completely ineffective to project Butcher’s NHL future based on the careers of previous Hobey Baker Award winners. Having said that, the NHL has and continues an illustrious legacy of collegiate defensemen. Like Butcher, core defensemen such as Torey Krug, Justin Schultz, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, and Danny Dekeyser all played at least three seasons in college before starting their professional careers. Additional defensemen worth mentioning include former Devil Jon Merrill, Jake Gardiner, Brett Pesce, and Alec Martinez. It’s also a commonly overlooked fact that half of New Jersey’s defense is comprised of players who played at least three college seasons before going pro. Butcher joins a collegiate group of blue liners that includes captain Andy Greene, Steve Santini, and Ben Lovejoy.
That’s not something you see quite often on an NHL defense.
If he doesn’t take his opportunities for granted, Will Butcher is capable of living up to the hype surrounding him this summer. The North American collegiate leagues have produced some marquee defensemen, many of which are currently among the NHL’s best. Butcher is entering a very conducive atmosphere, playing with defensemen who took the same path as him, along with being developed by a head coach who has deep ties in USA hockey. Butcher certainly has to fulfill huge expectations and while he might not be a pivotal asset to New Jersey’s blue line this season, he chose the perfect playing environment to reach that degree of skill.