Unheralded Butcher blossoming in Canucks backyard

By Matt MacInnis

Twenty-four years after the Vancouver Canucks selected a defenseman from the Regina Pats named Garth Butcher, the organization went back to those bloodlines to select Matt Butcher from the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs. The Canucks would consider themselves very lucky if Matt, the 138th overall pick in the 2005 draft, had anything close to the career of his father, who had a successful, 897-game NHL career, most of which were played in a Canucks uniform.

At 6’2, 205 lbs, Butcher is a large 18-year-old, who will see his 19th birthday on the first day of 2006. In 30 games this season, Butcher has 48 points (17 goals, 31 assists) and 70 penalty minutes. It puts him second in BCHL scoring behind only undrafted 19-year-old Brandon Wong. Butcher has already nearly surpassed last year’s total of 57 points, and barring injury will shatter his previous career best. Next year, Butcher will play as a freshman at Northern Michigan University.

Butcher is a big, rangy, pivot with good puck handling skills, hockey sense and vision. He uses his size and strength very well and is difficult to knock off the puck. But according to Chiefs Head Coach Harvey Smyl, Butcher has not only those traits on the ice, but is a team leader as well.

“He plays with the puck extremely well, he protects it well in the offensive zone. He carries it well, he’s so strong with the puck he’s hard to knock off in the offensive zone. Defensively he’s big and strong and he gets the jobs done. He’s got such good character, he’s a great, great captain for our hockey club.”

Butcher describes his own style as grinding and making sure that he is always working harder than the other players on the ice.

Butcher does have one glaring weakness that both he and his coach identify, however, and that is foot speed, especially his first step. Although he is not a slow skater once he gets moving, it takes him too long to get from first to second gear.

“He’s going to have to work on his foot speed; he’s going to have to be a lot quicker,” commented Smyl. “Especially with how the game has changed, it’s more about speed, it’s more about attack. And he’ll need to get better feet to play in the NHL.”

Butcher agrees with his coach while describing his own strengths and weaknesses.

“Strengths probably just seeing the ice well and weakness I guess getting quick starts,” Butcher told Hockey’s Future.

Butcher admits that it was “a little bit” surprising to be selected in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and that it was particularly special to be selected by the Canucks.

“It was nice to get drafted, especially by the Canucks. It was more of a thrill than anything that day.”

One of the most important components of finding a player in the draft that a team believes will develop into an NHL player is tracking his development, particularly from the age of 17 to 18. Teams want to find players who continue to improve every year, not early bloomers. Smyl has watched Butcher develop since the 2003-04 season and says that the Canucks prospect has improved by leaps and bounds since he joined the Chiefs.

“Huge,” said Smyl, using only one word to describe Butcher’s development. “I think he’ll make it because of his commitment. He has such huge commitment off-ice, he works extremely hard in the summer. He’s got the full commitment, he’s got great hockey sense, he’s got bloodlines, good thought-processing. He’s so committed that he can do nothing but improve.”

Butcher spent the off-season in Bellingham, Washington, training with 15 friends. The season before he spent some time with renowned trainer John Craighead, and says he based his own program off that experience.

Butcher elected to play in the BCHL because it would take him through to the NCAA, where he could receive an education. It is a decision that is clearly influenced by his family, but is one that he thinks was the best choice.

“My grades were pretty good. And mostly my mom said you’re going to get your education, so you may as well do it through hockey. It was the right choice and I felt comfortable in this league.”

Smyl, who once played in the AJHL for the St. Albert Saints, stands firmly behind the BCHL as the best Junior “A” league in the country.

“In Canada, for sure it is [the best]. I think there is only one that is probably comparable, and that’s the USHL. And I think both leagues are pretty strong.”

After this season in the BCHL, Butcher will move on to Northern Michigan University, which he visited for the first time during the summer.

“As soon as I went there I knew it was right,” Butcher recalled of his fly down to the school.

Butcher also says he will evaluate his time at college on a year-by-year basis. Two Canucks prospects, Brett Skinner and Mike Brown left college before graduating this summer, and Butcher thinks that was purely coincidental, and that both prospects were ready for the professional ranks. He says he will stay at college as long as necessary, although he hopes that he’ll be in a Canuck uniform five years down the road.

For the rest of the season, however, he will enjoy the fact that the Canucks brass has him in their backyard. He doesn’t see that as an added pressure.

“I wouldn’t really call it a pressure; it’s more of a privilege actually. They’re there and they’re able to help me out during the season.”

As a relatively unheralded late draft pick, expectations may not be high for Butcher, but it is clear from his performance on the ice this season that he is committed to making to the NHL. Most prospects drafted straight out of Junior “A” are greeted by skepticism, but a few good years at Northern Michigan could propel him up the Canucks organizational depth chart, one which is sorely lacking depth at center in the prospect ranks now that Ryan Kesler appears to have landed himself a permanent NHL job.

Initially labeled as a player with little more than checking line potential in the NHL, Butcher’s offensive production has erupted this year, making it clear that with improvements to his explosiveness and further refinement of his already strong puck handling skills, Butcher could become a second-line player for the Canucks. He likely remains at least five years from the NHL under the best development probability, but developing prospects is not always a race to get them to the next level as soon as possible. Butcher will require patience, but the raw potential is evident.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.