On Sunday, top college free agent Will Butcher decided to sign with the New Jersey Devils. A number of teams pursued the 2017 Hobey Baker winner, and in the end he opted to go with the Devils, whose lack of depth should give him ample opportunity to play in the NHL early on.
One team that didn’t end up pursuing Butcher is the Chicago Blackhawks. Based on reporting from The Athletic’s Scott Powers, the team didn’t even try to contact Butcher’s camp after he hit the open market on Aug. 16. A year after aggressively trying to sign Jimmy Vesey, Chicago sat out the college free agent market this month.
Understandably, there were a number of fans confused by this development. Before he became available, the Blackhawks had been reported as a likely suitor for Butcher. Why wouldn’t the franchise go after a talented young player who would only need an entry-level deal, and nothing more?
It’s a fair question, but the fact that they didn’t pursue Butcher should tell us something about where the Hawks are going.
They’re confident in Forsling and Kempny
This seems like the first takeaway here. If the Blackhawks were really worried about their situation on the left side of the defense entering next season, they would’ve done something. Instead, the team re-signed Kempny, took a flier on former Oilers blue liner Jordan Oesterle, and otherwise stood pat.
It’s hard not to read this as anything but a sign of confidence (or maybe resignation) in Kempny and Gustav Forsling. They’ve accepted that the defense’s best chance at maximizing its potential is to see what those two can do. They showed glimpses last season, and if that can be captured over the long haul, the Hawks may have their left side solidified for the time being.
Apparently Butcher, another left-handed defenseman, wasn’t good enough to break up this dynamic. The Hawks like what they have in Kempny and Forsling, and they already have a host of alternate options in Oesterle, Erik Gustafsson, and Carl Dahlstrom. If Butcher wasn’t going to meaningfully mix up that situation by pushing Forsling and Kempny for playing time in Chicago, then he would’ve been just another guy in Rockford next season.
They weren’t that impressed by Butcher
This isn’t to say that Butcher isn’t a good prospect. It’s just that he’ll be 23 years old in January, so whoever was going to sign him needed a short-term plan for him. If he’s not ready for the NHL soon, then he probably never will be.
As noted above, the Blackhawks presumably would’ve gone after him regardless of their confidence in Kempny and Forsling if they thought Butcher was good enough. But if they simply saw him as another flier, as another guy who’d be lumped into that Oesterle/Gustafsson/Dahlstrom group of “guys who might get a chance if Forsling and/or Kempny struggle,” then it’s not a particularly compelling sell.
And that’d go for both sides. In New Jersey, Butcher will likely get chances from Day 1 given the team currently has Damon Severson, Andy Greene, John Moore, Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout, and Michael Kapla as its top six. If Butcher is actually any good, then he should be able to get playing time with the Devils in fairly short order.
The Blackhawks wouldn’t have been able to offer as compelling an opportunity behind Kempny and Forsling, and they presumably knew it. Sure, you could go to the meetings anyways and see what happens, but Chicago likely knew it would’ve been offering a lesser situation than the favorable one he’ll receive elsewhere.
That’s a key difference from last season with Vesey, who clearly would’ve been given every chance to play a key role on the wings from Day 1. That’s why the Blackhawks pursued him so aggressively last summer, and given their lack of interest in Butcher, it seems like they decided he wasn’t ready for that kind of treatment.