By Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer–
BUFFALO — Nico Hischier and Will Butcher gave the New Jersey Devils a glimpse of what they hope will be a very promising future in the opening game of the Prospects Challenge against the Buffalo Sabres at HarborCenter on Friday.
Butcher, a 22-year-old defenseman, assisted on the tying goal by Ryan Kujanwinski with 3:21 left in the third period, and Michael Kapla scored 50 seconds into overtime to give the Devils a 4-3 win.
Hischier, an 18-year-old who was the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, centered a line with John Quenneville and Nick Lappin. He dazzled at times and exhibited the 200-foot game that made him such an enticing choice for the Devils.
“All the offensive stuff aside, his play without the puck, and his details and habits in his game were really good,” said coach Rick Kowalsky, who is coach of Binghamton, the Devils’ American Hockey League affiliate. “He was strong on the backcheck. He looks like the type of player that’s going to make players around him better.”
The Devils need a player with Hischier’s ability, intelligence and offensive acumen, particularly because first-line center Travis Zajac is expected to miss the first four months of the season after having surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle on Aug. 17.
“I’ll always try to compete as hard as I can and help the team; it’s not always in the offensive zone,” Hischier said. “I try and backcheck and play defense. That’s how I want to play and that’s my game.”
Butcher said, “[Hischier] is unbelievable with the way he stick-lifts guys and quickly gets the puck. It’s fun to be out there on the ice with him. I just give him the puck and let him create and do what he does.”
Butcher was the most sought-after college hockey free agent this offseason. He visited with the Sabres, Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings and Devils before signing a two-year, entry-level contract with New Jersey on Aug. 27. The left-hand shot worked the left point with partner Steven Santini against the Sabres and was booed by Buffalo fans every time he handled the puck.
“This is a great sports town; they know what’s going on,” Butcher said. “I thought it was very funny, and almost flattering at the same time. I love playing in front of great crowds.
“Playing with Santini really helped settle me down because I’ve played with him and he’s a great player.”
Butcher, who paired with Santini on USA Hockey’s Under-18 National Team Development Program in 2012-13, was solid throughout. He saw significant time on the power play and penalty kill, was rarely out of position, and exhibited plenty of poise.
“You can’t teach what he brings; every time he got it in transition or made a play off the rush, you just knew it was going to turn into something,” Kowalsky said. “On the tying goal, he joins the rush, and I can hear from the bench calling for the puck (on the give-and-go).
“We preach in the minors to communicate and let guys know where you are. Some guys can make plays off just hearing you, and I can hear him all over the ice, so that’s a good start for him and the group.”
Butcher said four years at the University of Denver prepared him well for this moment.
“For me, the more you communicate, the better you are,” he said. “I think if I tell guys where I want them or where I’m going to go, it helps them and helps my game out. The more I can talk, it’s better all-around for the team.”
Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA Division I men’s hockey last season. He became a free agent on Aug. 16 after deciding not to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the fifth round (No. 123) of the 2013 NHL Draft.
He scored 37 points (seven goals, 30 assists) in 43 games as captain last season at Denver, which won the NCAA championship. Kowalsky said Butcher has the potential to provide New Jersey a dimension it needs.
“[He] has to make the transition to pro hockey, and we’ve got to be careful not to have too high expectations, but there’s no question he’s a special talent,” Kowalsky said. “I think he gives us an element not only as a puck-mover, but a power-play specialist, and that’s something that I think has been inconsistent.”
(Reprinted with permission of NHL.com) (NHL.com photo)