The Sabres were in the running to land the top college free agent of 2017 in Denver defenseman, Will Butcher. Butcher had a great season with the University of Denver winning the Hobey Baker Award for being the best player in college hockey and he also ended his collegiate career with a national championship after defeating Minnesota-Duluth. Butcher signed a 2-year with the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night. Butcher is arguably the best college UFA defenseman since Justin Schultz left the University of Wisconsin in 2012. There is no question that adding Will Butcher to the Buffalo blueline would’ve been great but it’s really not the end of the world.
Butcher signed with the best fit in New Jersey. The Devils have a worse blueline than Buffalo and they are looking like they’re in the middle of a rebuild. There’s an opportunity for Butcher to possibly be a top four defenseman for the Devils in 2017-2018. On the other hand, there was no way that Butcher would crack the Sabres lineup for the upcoming season. If you look at Buffalo’s left side for the long term, it makes sense why Butcher decided to not sign with Buffalo. As of right now, Buffalo has Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, and Brendan Guhle under contract for the 2018-2019 season and Victor Antipin will be an RFA. You can’t really fault Butcher for striking on the immediate NHL opportunity in New Jersey when there was a question on if he’d even be able to make the Sabres roster after a couple seasons. Of course, it would’ve been great to have Butcher in the system but it’ll be okay. Buffalo’s defensive prospect system isn’t looking too bad right now with the likes of Brendan Guhle, Will Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald, and Oskari Laaksonen in the pipeline.
For many years now, Sabres fans have whined and complained about nobody wanting to sign in Buffalo. Yes, they lost out on Vesey, Petersen, and Butcher but you also have to look at the players who decided to sign here over the last few seasons. On the NHL side, Kyle Okposo signed a long term deal in Buffalo when there were several other teams wanting his services. Ryan O’Reilly signed long term here after Buffalo acquired him at the 2015 NHL Draft. Now for the college UFA side, Buffalo was able to lure C.J. Smith to sign an ELC and he got some games at the end of the 16-17 season. At the end of the 2015-2016 season, Buffalo was able to sign defenseman Casey Nelson out of Minnesota State. Evan Rodrigues, who was a teammate of Jack Eichel in 2015 also decided to sign here as an unrestricted free agent. These were three high profile college free agents who I’m sure had plenty of other options but in the end, they decided to come to Buffalo. Also defenseman Victor Antipin signed here when there were many teams looking for his services. He saw the opportunity here and came here despite a coaching and GM change. Players want to come to Buffalo, relax.
While I’m on the topic of college free agents I’m going to quickly touch on the mass hysteria that a small group of Sabres fans have over drafting college players after Jimmy Vesey and Cal Petersen didn’t sign with Buffalo. Fans should not be worried whatsoever about drafting college players. Especially in the early rounds. The only 1st round picks that come to mind that took the free agency route are Blake Wheeler and Kevin Hayes. Buffalo fans shouldn’t be scared of Casey Mittelstadt not signing here. There’s no chance that the kid will say no to millions of dollars to play college hockey for four more years. If Mittelstadt is playing for the University of Minnesota for the 2020-2021 season, he’s obviously not the player that Jason Botterill and Buffalo’s scouting staff thought he was. I’m a firm believer that Mittelstadt will sign at the conclusion of Minnesota’s season and maybe he’ll even get some games in the blue and gold at the end of this season depending on when Minnesota’s season ends. College players going the free agency route has increased in the last couple of seasons but it’s still a very rare occurrence. It’s not the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd round picks that you should be worried about drafting at all. It’s usually the late round picks that are late bloomers that take that path.
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