This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Willie Repeat

Will Butcher leaves DU with plenty of hardware in tow

By Terry Frei

When the Avalanche didn’t make an effort to sign 2013 draft choice Will Butcher after the crafty defenseman completed his junior season at the University of Denver in the spring of 2016, his return to the Pioneers for one more season was all but assured.

That might have been what happened, anyway. Butcher was neither anxious to leave DU nor committed to signing if he had the chance. But the Avalanche’s indifference eliminated much of the drama, and the Colorado coach at the time – Patrick Roy, who eventually resigned in mid-August – made it clear he believed the organization had drafted too many undersized, “scooter”-type, puck-moving defensemen and needed to get bigger and stronger on the blue line both at the NHL level and in the organization. And while the 5-foot-10, 190-pound (likely with rocks in his pockets) Butcher was an uncannily savvy defenseman and quarterback of the power play, he wasn’t a blazing skater, a quality that would have caused more to overlook his lack of size.

This is a thunderous understatement: It worked out for Butcher.

Bluntly, this was a no-brainer choice.

Butcher is Mile High Sports’ College Athlete of the Year for 2017.

As a senior, the Wisconsin native was the acknowledged and inspirational leader of an NCAA championship team. He was both the Pioneers’ glue and, at times, the spark – even given the presence of talented forwards Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry and Dylan Gambrell.

In 43 games for the Pioneers as a senior, Butcher had seven goals and 30 assists, and his totals over four seasons were 25 goals and 75 assists in 158 games. In his final season, he was the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Player of the Year and a first-team West All-American in the American Hockey Coaches Association voting.

On April 7, the night between the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals and finals, Butcher accepted the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey’s top player – yes, it’s hockey’s Heisman – in a ceremony at the Navy Pier.

“I’m honored to be chosen for such a prestigious award,” Butcher said in his acceptance speech. “There are a lot of people who have helped me along the way that have made it possible for me to be here today. First, I thank my teammates because without them this honor would not have been possible. As I’ve said before, I believe this award to be a team award. Tonight, as I accept this award, I accept it on behalf of our entire team at DU.”

Then, the next night, with the captain’s C on his jersey, Butcher got to accept and first hold aloft the NCAA championship trophy after the Pioneers beat Minnesota-Duluth 3-2 in the Frozen Four title game in Chicago’s United Center. That came a year after the Pioneers lost in the semifinals to arch-rival North Dakota.

“It’s hard to put into words what this win means,” Butcher said that night. “After that [North Dakota] loss, it seemed like everyone was focused from that day on to become better, become committed to excellence, like we always talk about.”

Back in Denver, he spoke at the team’s celebration at Magness Arena, and he went out of his way to thank the fans that attended the Frozen Four.

“I think that was the most fans we’ve ever had at a neutral site before. It was unbelievable,” Butcher said.

Seriously – can a senior season get any better than that? It was the culmination of a four-year career in which Butcher progressively got better.

“He was the one that made our engine go,” said DU coach Jim Montgomery. “I thought he had a great pulse on the locker room. What made him a great leader was his understanding the big moments in games. If we were losing momentum or gaining momentum, he seized moments. That was especially early when we didn’t have much mojo or confidence yet; he’d make the decisive play. When we went on that 14-2-2 tear, he was so instrumental there. And then at the Frozen Four, he was so composed all the way through. I mean, winning the Hobey Baker, he never got too high. He just focused on the next game and us winning the championship. That’s why he was so good for us, on the ice, off the ice.”

Perhaps you figured out that he didn’t sign with the Avalanche after his glorious senior season, either. By then, with Roy gone – his stand also involved the organization’s horrible track record at drafting and developing defensemen, big or small – the Avalanche at least got in the running for Butcher. During the 2016-17 season, in fact, GM Joe Sakic, assistant GM Chris MacFarland and player development consultant Brett Clark noticeably attended DU games and touched bases with Butcher.

In the draft-and-watch world of the NHL, the leverage shifts to the players if they stay for four full seasons, and unless they want to immediately join the NHL team after their senior year and finish out their season there, it makes little sense for seniors to then immediately sign with the teams that drafted them. (Plus, with the Frozen Four coming two weeks after the NCAA regionals, it ends about the same time as the NHL season.) That’s because seniors become unrestricted free agents in mid-August if by then they haven’t signed with the team that drafted them. That’s a major reason why NHL teams, which also sign prospects after their freshman or sophomore seasons, tend to make serious runs at all draft choices they covet after their junior seasons.

It isn’t about money, either. It’s about choice. The NHL collective bargaining agreement specifies terms of entry-level contracts, depending on where players are drafted, and the only wiggle room is in performance bonuses that might or might not come into play. So when Butcher told Sakic to hold off on putting an offer on the table and then indeed became a free agent and, after choosing among the suitors, signed with the New Jersey Devils, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Nobody would openly say this, but the Avalanche’s ambivalence about trying to sign him after his junior season was at least an issue.

There’s some irony at work here, too. While Butcher went elsewhere, the Avalanche also took advantage of the unique circumstances for seniors and signed two forwards in the same situation – Alexander Kerfoot of Harvard, who had gone to the Devils in 2013; and Dominic Toninato of Minnesota-Duluth, drafted by Toronto in 2012. Kerfoot has stepped right in and taken regular shifts for the Avalanche and been among its leading goal scorers as a rookie. Toninato, who was on the losing side as the Pioneers won the national championship game and as of this typing is with San Antonio of the AHL, is considered a Colorado prospect.

Essentially, if you’re okay with a draftee staying four seasons, even if he had promised his parents he’d get a degree before turning pro, you’re okay with possibly losing him. Last year, the Avalanche signed J.T. Compher, whose rights were acquired from Buffalo, after his junior season at Michigan. If he’d stayed at Michigan, the Avs would have gone through the same thing with him that they went through with Butcher.

Also, when the Avalanche landed 19-year-old defenseman Samuel Girard in the Matt Duchene trade, it committed to having two undersized D-men – Girard and Tyson Barrie – among its top six. And with Butcher playing well for the Devils as largely a power play specialist, it’s arguable he could have fit in with the Avalanche; however, it had to be done.

No matter what happens from there, Butcher’s glory-filled 2017 – All-America, league MVP, Hobey Baker winner, NCAA champion and so-far successful NHL rookie – will remain hard to beat, and more than certainly justifies this honor. In fact, Butcher becomes only the third Colorado athlete to ever earn back-to-back honors with Mile High Sports, joining ThunderRidge’s Abby Waner (High School Athlete of the Year) and Missy Franklin (Sportsperson of the Year).