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Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher will hit free agency, and the Blackhawks should pursue him

A possible solution to the Blackhawks’ lack of depth on defense.

2017 NCAA Div I Men's Ice Hockey Championships Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2017 Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher will hit unrestricted free agency on August 15 after deciding not to sign an entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche, reports BSN Denver’s Adrian Dater. The news was confirmed to Dater by Butcher’s agent, Brian Bartlett.

“We informed the Avalanche of that decision,” Bartlett said. “We appreciate what Colorado has done, and we’re not ruling out the Avalanche as a potential destination. But we just feel there will be other opportunities that should be explored too, and therefore we’re going (to the 15th).”

Butcher, 22, was drafted by Colorado in the fifth round (No. 123 overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. He spent the past four years at the University of Denver, where he progressed to become one of the Avs’ top prospects in their backyard.

As a senior last season, Butcher recorded 37 points in 43 games en route to winning the Hobey Baker, which is awarded to the top player in college hockey each season. Denver also won the national championship this year by defeating Minnesota-Duluth in the title game.

Now Butcher has the chance to hit the open market in mid-August, when the Avs’ draft rights to him expire. At that point, the other 30 teams will be able to make offers, just like a year ago when Jimmy Vesey left the Predators.

This is where the Blackhawks should once again jump into the fray. They’ve often pursued top young players from college and Europe to supplement their prospect pipeline, including Vesey last summer. In Butcher, there’s another obvious target that GM Stan Bowman should have his eyes set on.

Right now, the Blackhawks’ defense isn’t exactly shaping up to be a juggernaut next season. Yes, they still have Duncan Keith, but the rest of the lineup is full of question marks that won’t be answered until the season begins. Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling, and Erik Gustafsson are the top candidates to fill the final two spots behind Keith on the left side of the defense.

Chicago seems optimistic that it’ll get serviceable performance from those players, but none of them are sure things. With that in mind, the Hawks could offer Butcher the chance to compete against these guys for playing time. If he’s confident in his own abilities, which you’d imagine he is after dominating college hockey last season, then there’s reason to believe he’d be interested in the opportunity.

And while the Hawks’ salary cap situation is tight as always, it wouldn’t be a concern here. As a free agent, Butcher will be limited to entry-level offers, so the max he can sign for is a $925,000 base salary and $2.85 million in bonuses per year. That’s what Vesey got from the New York Rangers, and it’s likely what Butcher will get on his first NHL contract.

The Blackhawks were probably looking forward to a year without a contract overage now that Artemi Panarin’s entry-level deal is off the books, but the risk would likely be worth it here. Butcher would only get the majority of those bonuses if he’s an absolute beast out of the gate just like Panarin was. If that happens, I’m guessing the Blackhawks would be content to pay up.

Butcher wouldn’t necessarily solve the Hawks’ defense issues. He’s certainly not a sure thing as a 22-year-old with no professional experience. But Chicago is already taking a gamble, so why not add another lottery ticket to increase your odds? If having a couple of intriguing options in Forsling and Kempny is good, then having three intriguing options by adding Butcher would be even better.

The Hawks showed a year ago with their pursuit of Vesey that they’re willing to go after these kinds of players. Vesey didn’t exactly light the world on fire in New York, but he was still decent with 16 goals in his rookie season. Butcher hasn’t had the same hype as Vesey this offseason, but he could similarly be useful right out of the gate.

As the Blackhawks try to get younger on defense, they’ll be banking on guys like Forsling and Connor Murphy to play well. Butcher could be another option, and the cost would simply be a bonus-laden ELC. That’s a risk and reward opportunity worth going after.