On opening night, Stafford will likely be in his usual middle-six right wing role. He will get to finish for talented players like Marcus Johansson, Hall and Hischier, all of whom play best when setting up rather than shooting. Time will tell whether he winds up as this year’s version of Lee Stempniak or Jiri Tlusty.
Will Butcher – D
One of the shrewdest moves of Shero’s summer, the signing of Butcher could prove fruitful for a Devils team in need of defensive help. The Devils’ newest defenseman is the 2017 Hobey Baker winner (the NCAA’s top player). Despite going to school just minutes away from the Pepsi Center, where the Avalanche play, Butcher spurned the team that drafted him and opted to head to New Jersey on a two-year entry level deal.
Likely, the first question on everyone’s mind is whether Butcher can help the Devils. The last defender to win the Hobey Baker, as NJ.com points out, was Matt Gilroy in 2009, who would put up just 48 points in 255 games before fizzling out of the NHL. Before that, Matt Carle, also of Denver University, won the award in 2006. Obviously, Devils fans are hoping that Butcher turns out more like the latter than the former.
Will Butcher playing for the US National Development Team in the USHL. (Photo: Tom Sorensen)
Butcher was an integral component of Denver University’s NCAA title run in 2017 and brings an impressive skill set to New Jersey. Here’s Last Word on Sports’ Ben Kerr on the newest Devil:
Butcher has very good vision and the ability to thread the needle on passes both to start the transition game and in setting up plays in the offensive zone. He also has a good shot, and understands how to get it through to the net and keep it low to create opportunities for tip-ins and rebounds for his teammates. He has good agility and walks the line well to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. Butcher also shows poise with the puck and can stick handle away from a forechecker, or to create space in the offensive zone.
The Devils do not currently have a great puck handler playing on the left side of the defense. Andy Greene mostly sticks to the defensive zone nowadays and is tasked with playing conservative hockey to bail out his risk-taking linemates. John Moore puts up good numbers but mostly thanks to his shot and playing higher up than most of the team’s other defensemen. Butcher will provide a nice balance, as he does not seem to have the same sort of defensive issues that Moore has.
Butcher will likely be competing for a third-pairing role in his first year with another recent acquisition, Mirco Mueller. The Swiss-born defenseman may not get the extended opportunity to prove himself with Butcher breathing down his neck. Although either one could plausibly slot on the right side—Butcher played on the right last year due to team need—it would likely take an amazing preseason from both of them to push one of Damon Severson, Steven Santini, or Ben Lovejoy out of the lineup.
Butcher’s current skill level is likely a bottom-pairing defender at the moment, but long-term he could become a mainstay in the Devils’ top-four on the left side, a major organizational need. Giving him ample power-play time and sheltered minutes at even strength will help Butcher adjust to the speed of the NHL so that he can be an effective contributor in the future.
Overall, the Devils have brought on two new acquisitions who can help to balance a lineup that has youth and firepower but holes near the middle of the lineup. Stafford can come in as a middle-six right wing providing scoring help to the team’s playmakers in the Devils’ quest to leave the goal-scoring cellar. Also helping to remedy that will be Butcher, who can make plays from the blue line’s bottom pair. The two of them will be important pieces to a fresh Devils squad this year, one that looks poised to push for a playoff spot.