Evaluating New Jersey Devils LHD Will Butcher’s 2019-20 season

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - FEBRUARY 11: Will Butcher #8 of the New Jersey Devils takes the puck in the third period against the Florida Panthers at Prudential Center on February 11, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey.The Florida Panthers defeated the New Jersey Devils 5-3.

Will Butcher is on the decline after a breakout rookie season, but he still might have a bright future with the New Jersey Devils.

Everyone thought the New Jersey Devils found a hidden gem after they signed defenseman Will Butcher as a free agent in 2017, who went on to have a fantastic rookie campaign.

He wasn’t as effective in the 2018-19 season, but he was still one of the team’s top defenseman. In fact, he may have been the best of the bunch. However, Butcher looked like a totally different player this year, and not in a good way.

The 25-year-old’s season ended early after he suffered a thumb injury on Feb. 18 against the St. Louis Blues and subsequently underwent surgery on March 5.

The Devils have not been invited to participate in the league’s Return to Play plan, so Butcher’s third NHL season is officially over. He’ll have much to work on during the offseason.

In 56 games, Butcher recorded a career-low 21 points, coming in the form of four goals and 17 assists.

Of course, his injury and the early termination of the regular season contribute to his uncharacteristically low offensive numbers, but we shouldn’t expect his numbers to have been much better had the circumstances been normal.

Since Butcher has been one of the team’s best defensemen over the past two years, he was given the chance to prove he can be a top-four defenseman long-term. That didn’t end up working out well for him.

He was also bad on the power play, averaging just 1:18 on the power play per game compared to 2:39 in his rookie year and 2:46 last year. His poor performance this year on the man advantage was shocking since that had been a strength of his in years prior.

The Devils were the worst team in the Metropolitan Division this season and one of the worst teams in the league. Unsurprisingly, they also have one of the worst defensive corps in the NHL.

For that reason, it’s tough to hammer Butcher, but he still underperformed. Butcher established himself as an offensive defenseman, but there was no offense in his game this season. Because he’s an offensive defenseman, his defense wasn’t great but, at the same time, the Devils always struggled to clear the puck from their own zone.

As a result, Butcher was forced to spend more time defending and working on that aspect of his game. He had 27 giveaways which isn’t a great number but could be worse.

The Devils were one of the messiest teams in the league in terms of defensive pairings.

The addition of P.K. Subban to the defensive corps during the offseason complicated matters for guys like Butcher — the coaching staff spent most of the year trying to figure out where to play everyone.

The Devils recently hired former New York Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff as their new bench boss. This coaching change will prove to be more interesting for Butcher than most

Ruff struggled to fix the Rangers’ defensive woes and it will be interesting to see what he is capable of doing with an even worse defensive unit.

Butcher is still relatively young and has shown flashes of top-four potential, so his development and confidence are crucial to the future of this defense.

Can Ruff put Butcher back on track and help him forget about this season’s disaster? That remains to be seen, but Butcher’s success will be crucial to his defense’s future and he can help stabilize it for the coming years.

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