Making Will Butcher’s case for the Hobey Baker

Photo courtesy John Minchillo, Associated Press

In case you missed the announcement or live under a rock, University of Denver hockey captain and star defenseman Will Butcher was named to the Hobey Hat Trick las week. The Hobey Hat Trick is comprised of the three finalists for the National Player of the Year award and the other two finalists are forwards Mike Vecchione from Union and Zach Aston-Reese from Northeastern.

As the only defenseman finalist and the first defenseman named to the Hobey Hat Trick since 2009, does Butcher really have a chance to become DU’s second Hobey Baker Award winner?

In a word, yes.

The Hobey Baker Memorial Award is given to a player based on these four criteria:

  1. Strength of character, on and off the ice
  2. Contribution to the integrity of the team and outstanding skills in all phases of the game
  3. Scholastic achievement and sportsmanship
  4. Compliance with all NCAA rules, including being a full-time student in an accredited college or university and completing 50 percent or more of the season

For three of the four criteria, all three finalists qualify with flying colors. All three players are “high-character guys” on and off the ice and they’re smart, dedicated students. It’s the second criterion that will separate the winner from the two other finalists.

With just 7 goals and 29 assists (36 points), Butcher doesn’t have the kind of eye-popping stats that Vecchione (29G-34A-63P) and Aston-Reese (31-32-63) have. But the NCHC Offensive Defenseman and Player of the Year has still been the best player in all of college hockey. While he wouldn’t agree, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Pioneers wouldn’t be in their second straight Frozen Four without Butcher.

If the stats aren’t there for Butcher, what is it that sets him apart? What is it that makes Butcher the best player in the country? Simply put, it’s the intangibles. It’s the stuff that he does on the ice that can’t be measured.

Yeah, the senior captain plays 200-foot hockey, he gives it his all for a full 60 minutes, he’s a locker room leader, and whatever other cliches you can come up with. He’s all of that, but when you dig deeper, beyond those cliches, you start to piece together an all-around incredible hockey player.

Butcher’s mere presence on the ice gives Denver an advantage. His hockey IQ is second to none and he makes everyone on the ice better. From Adam Plant, his top defense pairing partner, to Evan Ritt, the fourth line center, Butcher’s presence gives every line an edge.

If there was one play that encapsulated Will Butcher’s offensive game, it was his goal against Michigan Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Right off the faceoff, he skated to the high slot, waited for a window, and shot the puck off of a Husky’s stick and into the back of the net. While it’s unlikely that he was aiming for the opposing player’s stick, it showed his mastery of the offensive game.

Butcher’s offensive prowess is well-documented, but what really sets him apart from the rest is what he does in his own zone, in front of Tanner Jaillet. Butcher is a major reason why Denver has the country’s best defense. If his offensive skills are great, his defensive skills are nearly flawless.

Will Butcher was very obviously not cut from the traditional defenseman cloth. Instead of being large and slow, he’s small and fast. Instead of depending on his size to play effective defense, he depends on his speed and positioning to stop the opposing offense. It’s his defensive game that Butcher embodies head coach Jim Montgomery’s relentless style of hockey. While he doesn’t have the size, his ability to pressure the puck on the opposing rush has thwarted countless opposing scoring chances this year.

It’s impossible to measure what makes Will Butcher the best hockey player in the country. He does everything extremely well and makes everyone on his team better. While he has just over half of the points that Vecchione and Aston-Reese have this year, Butcher embodies what the Hobey Baker Award honors better than the other two finalists.

Vecchione and Aston-Reese both had absolutely incredible seasons this year, but if the Hobey Baker Award committee is going to get this one right, they’re going to have to look past the statsheet. There just hasn’t been a better player in college hockey this year than Will Butcher.