Each August, there comes a time in the middle of the month when the hockey schedule breaks away from its late summer doldrums and gives us something to talk about. It’s the deadline for college free agents to sign with their original teams, and each Aug. 15, there’s usually a host of interesting names that hit the open market.
This year, the biggest name among the college free agent crop will be defenseman Will Butcher, a draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche and the reigning Hobey Baker winner as the best player in college hockey. He’s coming off an incredible four-year career at the University of Denver capped with a national championship in the spring.
Now set to hit the open market after declining to sign an entry-level contract with the rebuilding Avalanche, Butcher will have the chance to field offers from all 31 teams starting on Wednesday once he’s officially a free agent.
A year ago, we saw a big chase for forward Jimmy Vesey, who ended up choosing the New York Rangers and putting up 16 goals in his debut NHL season. Butcher may not be as big a name as Vesey, but he could have a similar impact as a top prospect coming out of college.
So how did we get here, and what does this mean for everyone involved? Let’s dig into the situation.
Why is Butcher hitting free agency?
The Avalanche drafted Butcher in the fifth round (No. 123 overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. As a prospect heading to an American college, Colorado got to retain his draft rights for four years. The team could’ve signed him to an entry-level deal at any time during that time frame, but decided against offering one in 2016.
Last summer, Butcher gave the indication he wasn’t exactly thrilled with how his relationship with the Avalanche was going.
“I’m just going about my business at DU, being the captain next year,” Butcher said. “They’re doing their business how they want to do it. And I’m doing mine.”
Lots of players go all four years in college, only to sign with their draft team. But the Avalanche clearly disappointed Butcher by waiting all four years to sign him, and once he had a breakout senior season at DU, he suddenly had enough attention around the league to get wide eyes for the open market. The Avs tried to sign him this spring, but he passed with free agency around the corner.
Part of what changed during that time is the departure of head coach Patrick Roy, who apparently wasn’t a fan of undersized defensemen. Since Roy’s departure, the Avs “showed heavy interest,” but it was too little too late.
This is the risk any team takes by waiting all four years to sign a good college prospect. It bit the Blackhawks in 2014 with Kevin Hayes, and the same happened to the Predators last year with Vesey. Now the Avalanche, badly in need of depth on defense, are missing out on someone who could’ve provided long-term help.
What can other teams offer him?
It’s important to note that as a college free agent, Butcher will be limited by the entry-level contract rules that apply to all players on their first NHL deals. So the maximum that any team will be able to offer is a two-year deal with a $925,000 base salary and up to $2.85 million in performance-related bonuses.
That’s the exact contract Vesey got from the Rangers last year, and it’s likely what Butcher will be looking for on his deal. The majority of the bonuses will be “Schedule B” bonuses that require impressive statistical or award-based feats, so a team would only be forced to pay out over $3 million annually if Butcher turns out to be quite good.
This will limit the leverage teams can create over each other given they’re operating on a even playing field in terms of money. Some teams will be more comfortable offering max bonuses than others, but there’s a firm limit on how much Butcher can command from teams, both in terms of base salary and potential compensation including bonuses.
That means teams will have to try to separate themselves through the opportunities they can offer. Butcher presumably wants a shot at the NHL right out of the gate, and teams that can confidently offer that to him will have a leg up over the competition.
Which teams are rumored to be interested?
As you’d expect with a top prospect hitting the market, several teams are already reported to be interested in Butcher. The Detroit News recently named the Red Wings, Penguins, Blackhawks, Wild, Sabres, Devils, and Maple Leafs as teams that have been “linked” to the 22-year-old.
So there’s a rough sketch of teams that could try to sign Butcher, and you’ll notice several of them have openings on defense. It’d probably be harder for the Hobey Baker winner to crack the lineup on some teams than others, but the Blackhawks, Devils, and Sabres are among those with ample room at the bottom of their depth charts where Butcher could fit in.
It’s also possible other teams, such as the Rangers (often players for top college free agents), jump into the fray that we haven’t heard about so far. Given he’s limited to an ELC, pretty much any team could afford him if it really wanted to.
So how good can Butcher really be?
Well, he’s good enough that a whole bunch of NHL teams are going to try aggressively to sign him over the next few days. Like any top prospect entering the highest levels of hockey, there’s a chance he struggles to translate his success against bigger, faster opponents.
But Butcher also showed an impressive two-way game at Denver that could fit well in the modern NHL. He’s got good skating ability, playmaking, and hockey sense, which he put on display with 37 points in 43 games as a college senior. The defenseman steadily improved his point-per-game production each year, from 0.42 to 0.47 to 0.82 to 0.86.
That’s what you want to see out of a top college prospect, and it gives hope that Butcher could be the kind of mobile, puck-moving defenseman who is increasingly becoming a staple of the NHL. He may not have the upside of a No. 1 or top-pairing defenseman at the highest level, but he could be a solid third- or even second-pairing blue liner in short order. That’d be massive value for a team signing him to an affordable ELC.
Are there any other prominent college free agents this year?
There are a ton of drafted players whose rights expire at midnight on Tuesday. Butcher is the big name that stands out as the cream of the crop, but Cap Friendly recently shared the full list of prospects who will hit the open market.
A list of drafted College players who's club rights expire on Aug 15, 2017. pic.twitter.com/zKnKvsE7NB— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) August 9, 2017
The most-discussed name following Butcher on this list is forward Alexander Kerfoot, who has declined to sign with the Devils after being drafted by the team with a fifth-round pick in 2012.
Kerfoot was a teammate of Vesey’s at Harvard University, and steadily progressed over his four years at the school. He recorded just 14 points in 25 games as a freshman back in 2013-14, but progressed to a breakout 16 goals and 45 points in 36 games as team captain in 2016-17.
He just turned 23 years old, so there’s not a ton of projection here, but Kerfoot could end up being a depth option for an NHL team. While he won’t get as much attention as Butcher, or have the same potential impact, there’s another name worth keeping an eye on once these players are all available in a matter of hours.