He's hasn't yet worn the burgundy and blue sweater on the ice, but Avalanche prospect Will Butcher is already familiar with the arena of the team that selected him in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Watching from the Pepsi Center seats, Butcher and his University of Denver teammates attended a preseason game between the Avs and the Los Angeles Kings last September to check out some early fall hockey and to support current Pioneer Quentin Shore's older brother Nick, a DU alum and a player in L.A.'s system.
While several of the DU bunch were cheering for Nick and the Kings, Butcher made sure to support the club that chose him in the fifth round (123rd overall) three months earlier.
"It was really cool," Butcher said of going to the game. "Obviously, I had my Avs stuff on and was rooting for them."
Butcher is halfway through his freshman campaign at DU—just seven train stops and six miles south of Pepsi Center—and has been an offensive presence for head coach Jim Montgomery's blue line.
The defenseman from Sun Prairie, Wis., has seven points (four goals and three assists) this season and has been a welcome addition to a defensive unit that ranks first nationally in goals scored (23) and second in points (67).
"He helps us win every night," Montgomery said of Butcher. "What really has been impressive is how committed he is to every part of his game. To me, he practices like a pro, and he wants to get better every day. Even though he is a real good power-play quarterback, he wants to be good defensively because he wants to be in every situation."
His play in every situation was also key for Team USA at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Butcher finished tied for fourth on the team in scoring with five points (two power-play goals and three assists) in five tournament games.
Wearing a USA jersey was nothing new for Butcher as he played two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program and competed at the 2012 and 2013 under-18 world championship. Still, he said its special each time he wears the national team sweater.
"It is a great honor to do it," Butcher said. "It's the one thing when you grow up, when you're little, and you watch the world juniors and you watch the Olympics every four years, its just a thing that you always dream of doing, and when you actually get to do it, it is like no other feeling that you can describe."
Butcher isn't the tallest defenseman at 5-foot-11, but that's not a worry for Montgomery. The Denver coach said Butcher has adapted his game to his size and has become an intelligent player on the ice.
"I like my defensemen that are smart and competitive, and he has those both," Montgomery said. "He's really learned how to angle and go through the body really well on rushes. He gets scoring chances; he always ends up being a plus (rating) at the end of the night. He is a good hockey player, and a good one for the Avs to have."
Butcher has worked on all facets of his game since he first stepped onto the DU campus in the fall, but one part he has focused on is becoming a better defensive defenseman. Among the areas of his defensive game that he has worked on is staying close to the opposing player that he's assigned to in his own zone, or what the team calls, 'Sticky D.'
"You definitely have to play both ends of the ice," Butcher said. "Trying to develop more of my defensive game, and I think that has been a big point here at Denver and at what I'm trying to do. I know [Montgomery] and (assistant coach David) Lassonde have been working well with me in that regard."
Butcher has been making good progress in that area in the first four months of the season, and Montgomery said the freshman could also look for inspiration and technique with several current NHL players that aren't the biggest on defense.
"It's not easy going up against the guys with the average size in the NHL," said Montgomery, who played parts of six seasons in the National Hockey League. "He's going to have to learn how to defend that way and watch guys like Duncan Keith and Dan Boyle to make it and continue to grow. Tyson Barrie is someone else he can watch."
In the meantime, Butcher will continue to watch and learn under the tutelage of DU's lone senior defenseman, David Makowski.
Butcher and Makowski have been paired up on defense for most of the season, and Butcher credits the upperclassman for helping him adjust to the college game.
"He is definitely a mentor to me," Butcher said. "He is always talking, giving me advice on plays and stuff like that. We are always talking and making each other better. It's really nice to be paired with him."
DU's hockey program has grown a reputation of turning out top talent in recent years with 10 former players currently playing for NHL clubs. Butcher's hope is to be one of the next players to do so.
"That's my dream, my goal and aspiration to be [in the NHL]," he said. "However many years it takes."
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