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Penguins among teams after Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, 2:54 p.m.
Denver's Will Butcher skates the puck up the ice during the first period in the regional semifinals of the NCAA college hockey tournament against Michigan Tech, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Cincinnati. Denver won 5-2. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Denver's Will Butcher skates the puck up the ice during the first period in the regional semifinals of the NCAA college hockey tournament against Michigan Tech, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Cincinnati. Denver won 5-2. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Denver's Will Butcher skates the puck up the ice during the first period in the regional semifinals of the NCAA college hockey tournament against Michigan Tech, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Cincinnati. Denver won 5-2.
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Denver's Will Butcher skates the puck up the ice during the first period in the regional semifinals of the NCAA college hockey tournament against Michigan Tech, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Cincinnati. Denver won 5-2.

University of Denver defenseman Will Butcher was scheduled to hit the open market at midnight Tuesday night, triggering a feeding frenzy of NHL teams looking to sign the Hobey Baker Award winner.

The Penguins are one of the teams in pursuit, according to a source.

Butcher, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin, was named the top player in college hockey last season after recording 37 points in 43 games.

As per NHL collective bargaining agreement regulations, college players who do not sign with the team that drafted them by Aug. 15 after their senior year become unrestricted free agents. Butcher was the Colorado Avalanche's fifth-round choice in the 2013 draft, but he declined to sign with them.

Last season, the Penguins were among the runners-up in the sweepstakes for Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey of Harvard. Vesey signed with the New York Rangers and put up 16 goals as a rookie. The Penguins got Notre Dame forward Thomas Di Pauli as a consolation prize instead. Di Pauli missed most of his rookie season in Wilkes-Barre with injuries.

Because of the strict nature of NHL entry-level contracts, teams courting Butcher will be offering contracts with similar, if not identical, terms and salaries. Their sales pitches, then, focus on other factors.

The Penguins could be attractive to Butcher for a few reasons.

First, they're the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

Second, they won those championships with major contributions from players fresh out of the college ranks.

But with eight defensemen on one-way contracts, the Penguins can't legitimately offer Butcher an NHL job right away.

According to the Denver Post, Butcher was scheduled to meet Wednesday with the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Vegas Golden Knights, three teams that might have an easier time dangling such a carrot.

With the Penguins, Butcher would fill a cavernous void on the team's depth chart just below NHL level.

Having used eight of their 12 picks in the last two drafts on defensemen, the Penguins will have a slew of prospects coming along at the position in a few years. In the meantime, though, Derrick Pouliot is the only defense prospect the Penguins have who could be considered on the brink of breaking into the NHL.

Butcher is known for his high-end skating and vision. Because he is 5-foot-10, 190 pounds and offensive-minded, there are concerns about how his defensive game will play against NHL competition.

While Butcher is the clear headliner in the college free-agent class, a couple of other prospects of decent pedigree will join him in free agency. Most notably, centers Alex Kerfoot and Dominic Toninato will attract plenty of NHL attention.

Kerfoot, a New Jersey draft choice, had 45 points in 36 games for Harvard last season. The Penguins are not believed to be in hot pursuit, however, as Kerfoot is expected to head to the Western Conference, perhaps signing with his hometown Vancouver Canucks.

Toninato, a Toronto draft pick, had 29 points in 42 games for Minnesota-Duluth. The Penguins have some interest in Toninato, but they're not desperate to add college forwards at this time because they have already signed two players from that category in recent months.

Last March, they signed NCAA leading scorer Zach Aston-Reese out of Northeastern, and he appears close to graduating to NHL duty. In July, they signed center Adam Johnson from Minnesota-Duluth, and the front office is excited about his two-way potential.

Aston-Reese and Johnson weren't bound by the Aug. 15 deadline because they were undrafted.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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