At 14U/16U, it’s very tempting to look ahead. To think, “What’s next?” To wonder, “How can I get to the next level as soon as possible?” And “Should I move up early to get ahead?”
Everyone’s path is different, but all should take one piece of advice: There’s no reason to rush development.
New Jersey Devils star rookie defenseman Will Butcher didn’t.
“Everyone has to make their own decisions, and the route I took definitely worked out in my favor,” said Butcher, who capped off his senior year at the University of Denver in 2016-17 with the Hobey Baker Award and a NCAA national championship. “I think when you’re younger, it’s easy to get lost in the excitement of moving up or trying to rush your development, because you want to be there. But you really have to take a step back and figure out if it’s the right move.”
The allure of moving up
The Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, native came up through the Madison Capitols youth program before joining USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program for two years. He was selected in the fifth round (123rd overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
When his name was called, he admits there already was the allure of turning pro. It was there after his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons at Denver, too. Still, despite chances to turn pro, he opted to stay and continue developing as a player and a leader.
“I think it gave me a chance to grow not only as a player, but as a person,” Butcher said. “Anytime you can take your time to sit back and assess your game a little bit and fine-tune it up, it helps you make the jump to a higher level.”
When Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery told Butcher his teammates elected him captain his senior year, Butcher knew he was making the right choice to return to Denver.
“I knew I could go back and lead our team and gain that experience,” said Butcher. “I love that place, and I couldn’t say no to that.”
Serving in leadership roles builds character and accountability. It’s another tool for the development toolbox that will come in handy down the road, both at the rink and in life.
Another year with your buddies
“Those guys are going to be my best friends for life,” said Butcher. “That was a major part of my decision to come back, and made the decision pretty easy for me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that group of guys just yet.”
When 14U/16U players are looking to make an early jump, that often means leaving teammates that have become like family. Being able to play with your best friends, neighbors and classmates won’t last forever, so why not cherish those moments?
Jumping early to the next level means kids will be skating with older kids, who are physically more developed, and the social dynamics are different as well. Oftentimes moving up early hinders development instead of enhancing it.
Minutes and responsibilities
Butcher knew there were parts of his game that could be tweaked and fine-tuned before he was ready to move up. What better way to do that than by being “the guy” at Denver – playing top minutes on the blue line, quarterbacking the power play and being relied on in nearly every situation.
“My biggest emphasis was, I wanted to be better defensively. And playing with my D-partner Adam Plant, we wanted to shut down the top lines and top guys around the nation for another year,” said Butcher. “I think growing into that role, playing top-pair minutes really helped grow my game.”
Moving up too early can bury players on the depth chart, limiting reps, opportunities and development. The lack of ice time and opportunity eats at a player’s confidence. That’s not fun – and that’s when kids lose their passion and love for the game.
The long game
If a player is good enough, he or she will get noticed. Coaches and scouts will find them. There are no secrets anymore. Having patience in long-term athlete development will serve players well in their hockey careers.
“I can’t speak for everybody,” said Butcher. “There are different situations and you really need to sit down and weigh the pros and cons, but in my opinion, there is absolutely no reason to rush ahead to the next level of the game. It’s always going to be there if you’re good enough, so there’s no point in rushing.”