Over the past year, the Buffalo Sabres have had a pipeline of quality defensive players move up from the AHL and immediately contribute. The hallmark of these defensemen, like Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber, has been intelligent, responsible play in their zone. The next player in the line of succession is Portland Pirates defenseman Chris Butler.
Butler is widely considered one of Buffalo’s elite prospects. Hockey’s Future rates him as the seventh best player in the Sabres organization. Based on the fact that those graded above him have already played significant minutes in the NHL, high expectations are being placed on the 22-year-old.
On being rated among notable NHL and AHL contributors like and Tim Kennedy, Butler noted the success of his peers and said: “I’m fine with being grouped in with those guys, that’s for sure.”
Butler’s upbringing was, in many ways, the typical American story. He grew up in a small middle class neighborhood outside of St. Louis, spending time with friends from the block and playing sports. He credits his parents for instilling in him a solid work ethic.
“I think that [a strong work ethic] was something instilled in me at a young age," he said. "My parents never pushed me to play hockey or baseball, but told me if you want something, work for it.”
During high school, Butler was only about 5’9 as a 15-year-old, and started to doubt himself. He labored through, and was rewarded with a surge in growth. Butler also credits an affinity for weight training as a factor in his success.
“They say hard work beats talent when talent isn’t working hard, and I pride myself on that,” he noted. “I pride myself on outworking others who could be in my same position.”
Due to his efforts and development, Butler was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school in 2005. He took a look at Ohio State, North Dakota, Colorado College, and Minnesota-Duluth before settling on the defending national champion University of Denver. He cited the comfortable, small school atmosphere and the hockey program’s success as a draw to the Pioneers.
While at DU, his trajectory continued upward. During his collegiate career, he posted 20 goals and 46 assists in 115 career games. He earned All-WCHA rookie team accolades in 2006, along with All-WCHA second-team honors and an All-America selection in 2008. He was drafted 96th by Buffalo in 2005, and ultimately decided to forego his senior season and turn pro in 2008, signing a three-year entry-level contract.
Butler had an impressive training camp this fall, but including Weber and Sekera, the Sabres have eight established NHL defensemen. He spoke about his place in the organization, and what indications the team gave to him about when he may be called up.
“They haven’t really talked too much about the immediate future,” he explained. “We had a group meeting at end of camp with Kennedy, (Dylan) Hunter, (Marek) Zagrapan, (Mike) Funk. They basically told us we all had a good camp but told us we needed some seasoning and needed to work on some things. I understood that the AHL would have been a very strong possibility, but I went into camp trying to earn a spot and show them that I can play at that level.”
Now with the Portland Pirates, he has lived up to his reputation as a technically sound defenseman who will make the smart play. Through 21 games, Butler has 2 goals, 7 assists, with a +2 rating and 14 penalty minutes. He’s spent time on the power play and penalty kill for the young squad.
“As a team, we started the season a lot better than people thought, rattled off some games and hit a rut," he said. "I’m not sure if we got complacent or went from getting bounces to not. We’ve worked hard here the last three to five days of practice, worked on defensive zone coverage and being responsible before jumping up on offense.”
Asked what part of his game he has worked to improve, he discussed his efforts to improve on offense, and brought up a different sort of Big Three from the Motor City. “I watch a lot of games and look at (Niklas) Kronwall, (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Brian) Rafalski, the guys on Detroit. They always seem to get shots through and use passing lanes.”
While he has worked to improve on offense, blocking shots is already a mainstay of his game. The Sabres have not had a consistent shot-blocking defenseman since the free agency departure of Jay McKee in 2006. That part of his game was learned at DU.
“It was something I paid a lot of attention to in college, mainly on the penalty kill. It was just kind of something you did there; if you wanted to be on the penalty kill, you blocked shots.” He added, “It’s something you take pride in. Not a lot of guys are willing to do it; there are a lot of areas on the body unprotected. Especially with the way guys can shoot the puck in the NHL, it hurts sometimes when you take one off the inside of the leg or shoulder, but if it can help win the game is where it makes the difference.”
Butler’s defensive partner has varied in Portland. Typically, young defensemen look to be paired with a savvy veteran upon being called up to the NHL. While he spoke about Buffalo veterans Craig Rivet and Teppo Numminen with admiration, his ideal defensive partner in Buffalo is a bit of a surprise.
“In camp I was with Mike Weber,” he said. “It seemed like we had a decent amount of chemistry, so it’d be fun to play with a young guy. We both bring a little bit of enthusiasm.”
Whoever he is paired with, Butler is looking forward to the opportunity to play in Buffalo. During his short stays in the city, he has already sneaked to a Bills game and visited some of the downtown restaurants. First and foremost though, is the work on the ice.
“Getting a chance to play up in Buffalo would be a dream come true. Whether it was three, 10 or 20 minutes a night who knows, but if I got a chance to get called up, first and foremost I want to keep things simple…there are some unbelievably talented guys up there; it would be great to soak up watching some of those guys on the power play and penalty kill.”
Given Butler’s steady play in Portland and Buffalo’s recent struggles, it may be sooner than later that the team has to find a spot for this bright young defenseman.