Chris Butler has shown an exceptional amount of loyalty to his hometown team, and he deserves some recognition.
Last week, shortly before the start of the NHL free agency period, defenseman Chris Butler signed with his hometown St. Louis Blues for the fourth straight offseason. While Butler re-upping with the Blues has basically become an annual summer tradition, it was still rather surprising to see him return to the organization last week, but it also spoke tremendous volumes about his commitment to the Blues.
Butler, a native of Kirkwood, Missouri, joined the Blues on a two-way deal before the 2014-15 season. Despite the fact that he had posted a minus-23 rating on a bad Calgary Flames team in 2013-14, it certainly seems possible that he could have gotten a one-way deal from another club that offseason, as he had played in 82 games and averaged 20:16 of ice time per game while collecting two goals and 14 assists. Nevertheless, he chose to come home and play alongside former high school teammate Paul Stastny, even though there was no guarantee of playing time–or even an NHL roster spot–on a Blues team that already had seven established defensemen.
As it turns out, the Blues didn’t have room for Butler on their opening-night roster, and they assigned him to the AHL Chicago Wolves to begin the season. After he thrived for a month in the AHL and incumbent seventh defenseman Jordan Leopold struggled to find playing time with the Blues, though, they dealt Leopold to Columbus and recalled Butler. He proceeded to perform extremely well in part-time duty, collecting a career-high three goals with six assists and a plus-8 rating in 33 games. He was rewarded for that performance, earning a one-way deal from the Blues on the opening day of free agency in 2015. The fact that the Blues gave him a fully-guaranteed salary seemed to signify that he’d be penciled into an NHL role in the coming season.
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Unfortunately for Butler, he was a victim of unexpected circumstances. A then-unheralded defenseman named Colton Parayko, a veteran of just 17 minor-league games, came into training camp and performed so well that it was impossible for the Blues to send him down. Former second-rounder Joel Edmundson also made a major impression after dealing with injuries for the previous two years, and he earned a spot on the opening-night roster. As a result, there simply wasn’t enough room for Butler–or Petteri Lindbohm, who seemed to have played himself into a top-six role during his rookie season in ’14-’15–and the Blues sent him back to the AHL to start the season.
This is the point at which it would have been extremely easy for Butler to get discouraged; after being penciled into a roster spot, he was bumped off the roster as two young guys came out of nowhere to make the club. He went down to the AHL and continued to work hard, though.
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While they gave opportunities to other veteran defensemen such as Andre Benoit and Peter Harrold rather than Butler at various points, the Blues did reward Butler at times during the season, bringing him up for a brief period early in the year while Kevin Shattenkirk was injured, calling him again in January, and then bringing him back for the playoffs. All in all, Butler played in five games with the NHL club, posting a minus-1 rating with no points.
Surely, it would have been easy for Butler to jump ship after the ’15-’16 season. For that matter, it might have made sense for the Blues to move on and guarantee more minor-league playing time to younger defensemen. After all, he’d embarked on a deep playoff run with his hometown team, and there weren’t going to be many more opportunities for him with the NHL club going forward. After all, he was 29 years old, and opportunities were running out for him to pocket some extra cash as another club’s seventh or eighth defenseman. Butler surely could have done so if he wanted to; there are quite a few NHL clubs that utilize defensemen with track records much shorter than Butler’s over the course of a season.
Somehow, though, Butler ended up back with the Blues organization, signing a two-way deal shortly after the beginning of free agency. This time, he was formally recognized for his longevity with the Blues, being named the captain of the Wolves in October. He spent nearly all of the 2016-17 season in the AHL, coming up for a day to serve as a healthy scratch in November but only getting into the Blues’ lineup for the final game of the regular season on April 9. He played an impressive 21:28 in that game–second on the team to Parayko–and posted an even rating.
Despite Butler’s performance in the regular-season finale, it seemed likely that he’d move on after the 2016-17 campaign. After all, the Blues won’t have an official AHL affiliate for the 2017-18 season, and it seemed probable that they’d want to guarantee regular playing time for top prospects Vince Dunn and Jake Walman by any means necessarily. Perhaps we should have expected by this point, though, that Butler would come back again. Sure enough, he did, this time with a new twist–a two-year, two-way contract–which means the annual summer tradition of him signing a new one-year contract with the Blues will come to an end next year.
Because of the Blues’ less-than-ideal development arrangement, they have no control over how their AHL players are utilized. Thus, it’s unknown how much playing time Butler will get, whether he’ll go back to the Wolves, and if he does whether he’ll be their captain again. And while it’s hard to envision him being any higher than 10th on the Blues’ defensive depth chart, he’ll surely be ready to help out his hometown team if called upon.
There’s no need to feel sorry for Butler, because he’ll get to spend at least five years of his life doing what so many of us St. Louisans grew up wishing we could do–playing at Scottrade Center and wearing the Blue Note. But the consistent desire he’s shown to stay in St. Louis, even when better or more lucrative opportunities were surely available, is refreshing in a sports landscape where money is too often the only thing that matters to athletes.