Sens think Butler has what it takes

by Michael Sharp || AHL On The Beat Archive

Bobby Butler stores two game pucks in his small Binghamton Senators travel bag, alongside hockey tape and a photo of his grandfather.

He’s been carrying the first puck around since Oct. 20, 2006 – the night he took a pass in the slot and buried a snap shot for his first collegiate goal, in his first collegiate game.

The second one has logged considerably fewer miles. That one joined the collection on Oct. 8 of this year, when Butler slipped around the net and scored backdoor for his first American Hockey League goal – again, in his first game in the league.

“I just keep them with me,” Butler said. “Just a reminder to keep playing hard and shooting the puck.”

And looking ahead, the smart money says Butler will add that all-important third puck to his collection — the one marking his first NHL goal — perhaps as soon as this season.

An undrafted rookie right wing out of the University of New Hampshire, where he was a finalist for college hockey’s prestigious Hobey Baker Award last spring, Butler has quickly established himself as a key prospect in the Ottawa Senators organization.

“His skill set is high,” Binghamton coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. “He’s definitely got ability. He skates well. He shoots the puck very well. Good hockey sense. I mean, he does a lot of the little things well. And he’s a kid that, at some point, if he continues to develop and progress, I don’t know that it’s much of a matter of if he’s ever going to get to that next level, it’s just a matter of when.”

Of course, Butler has already had one brief taste of hockey’s highest level. After ranking second in all of NCAA Division I hockey with 29 goals last season, he jumped straight to the NHL in late March, signing a two-year deal with the Senators, then promptly logging two games with Ottawa.

Now he’s starting anew in Binghamton, where he’s shared a line with AHL all-stars Corey Locke and Ryan Keller, posting three goals and two assists over his first five games.

“It’s going good,” Butler said of his opening weeks with the B-Sens. “It’s a lot different than college obviously. Guys are bigger, stronger. And faster game. But so far so good I’d say.”

Apparently so.

Ottawa assistant general manager Tim Murray said the 6-foot, 185-pound Butler had a strong preseason, and that the rookie has not only shown the skills to be a top-six forward in the NHL, but the versatility and smarts to slide into a bottom-six role, if needed, as well.

“He’s got good hands. He’s got good feet. He’s got good offensive instincts.” Murray said. “And we think he’s got a good chance to score goals at this level.”

Away from the rink, Butler, 23, is a golfer and a movie buff who lists “Money Talks” with Chris Tucker as his favorite film. He graduated in May with a degree in Health Management and Policy, and in his player bio at New Hampshire, he named his younger brother Al as his favorite athlete.

But if you’re looking for a story to sum up No. 12 on the Binghamton Senators, perhaps no one is more qualified than his old coach at Marlborough High in Massachusetts. The man has spent 25 years behind the bench for the Panthers, so he’s obviously seen quite a bit. Plus, as the last name no doubt gives away, John Butler is Bobby’s father.

The year was 2005, and as John tells it, Marlborough was preparing for a state semifinal, when word began spreading through the dressing room that NHLer Bill Guerin – apparently a friend of the opposing team’s coach – was in the building that day.

“One of the kids in the locker room said, ‘Hey, I just saw Bill Guerin go in their locker room,’” John remembers. “And Bob had said, ‘We’re not playing Bill Guerin tonight … we’re playing the other team.’”

And, Marlborough had its hands full.

With six minutes left in the third period, the Panthers trailed 2-1, their season on the brink. But Butler stole a pass at the blue line to set up the tying goal. He then scored the game-winner, and for good measure, added an empty-netter as well.

The state championship proved less dramatic, as Butler notched a hat trick in the first period, ultimately finishing with four goals and one assist in Marlborough’s 6-3 win. Years later, in an interview at New Hampshire, Bobby would list the victory – and the postgame hug with his dad, a first-time state champion coach – as his most memorable sports moment ever.

“It just showed (him) take over as a leader,” John Butler said. “And his determination, and all the years of all his hard work, kind of coming to fruition.”

Much of that hard work came with father and son on the ice together. Bobby, who’s been skating since he was 3, recalls childhood afternoons on the ice with his dad’s high school team, shooting on varsity goalies. Later, during summers with Bobby home from college, the two would hit the rink at 6 a.m., turn the lights on, and practice for some 45 minutes.

“We’d just work on shooting, and shooting while skating, and moving his feet, and quick release,” John said. “Little things that made him a better skater and a better shooter. He was always a kid who wanted to go to the rink …”

Butler broke out in his senior year at New Hampshire. After averaging 11 goals and 12 assists over his first three seasons, he racked up 29 and 24 in his final one, his 1.36 points per game ranking fourth in the nation.

In his second-to-last collegiate game, he scored twice against Cornell – and future B-Sens teammate Colin Greening – for a 6-2 win in the NCAA East Regional semifinals. In the stands, the Ottawa brass was watching.

“He looks like a big-game player,” Murray said. “And I think part of being a big-game player is understanding what’s going on around you all the time, and your instincts in the game, and your desire to want to make a difference. And to us, it looked like he always wanted to make a difference.”

Two days after New Hampshire’s season ended with a loss in the East Regional finals, Butler signed with the Senators. Three days after that, he was lining up against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes at Scotiabank Place.

“I was very nervous,” he said of his debut. “The first couple shifts, I didn’t want to screw up. I just kind of wanted to do my job and get off the ice. I think my first shift was probably like 10, 11 seconds or something crazy. But after a couple shifts, I felt comfortable. I felt like I could play at that level, and I got better and better, had a couple shots. But I definitely felt good.”

And that glimpse of the NHL – “It’s everything that you dream of as a kid, plus more” – became yet another motivator for a player who took to heart getting passed over in the draft years ago.

So now he begins the climb back with the B-Sens. Both Kleinendorst and Murray listed strength as one thing Butler can work on in the AHL, as he continues to adapt to the pro level. And Butler said helping to end Binghamton’s five-year playoff drought is another aim as well.

“We don’t think he’s far away,” Murray said. “Whether it’s 10 games in the American League, or a year in the American League, that’s somewhat dictated by what happens here (in Ottawa). But we think he’s very close. We’ve watched him play in the National Hockey League. … He’s played exhibition games here. He was very close to making the team. So, he’s close. Somebody else’s bad break will be his good break.”