If Richmond’s Marlion Pickett was the feel-good story of last year’s finals series, ex-teammate Dan Butler is looking like a sure candidate for Season 2020.
From discarded Premiership Tiger – traded to St Kilda in exchange for pick No. 56 – to All-Australian and AFL Players' Association MVP nominee, the rapid form reversal has turned heads league-wide.
Now, the 24-year-old is set to be part of the Saints’ drought-breaking finals tilt in less than two weeks’ time.
It certainly didn’t look like happening that way almost a year ago when the small forward was shifted to the trade table following Richmond’s second flag in three years.
“I probably struggled a bit last year in terms of getting opportunity and finding form,” Butler, who played seven games in 2019, told saints.com.au.
“At the Saints I just wanted to kind of go and train hard and have fun and just not put so much pressure on myself.”
Butler was still feeling the press right up until the final moments of the trade period.
The last-minute signing left the peroxide-blonde Butler – holidaying in Bali at the time – to sweat on his fate, before the deal was finally made official.
He’s impressed ever since.
Amid the club’s raft of high-profile signings during the off-season, Butler's form on the training track came as the biggest surprise.
His aerobic power and extraordinary engine which could run opposition defenders ragged was lauded by coaches heading into the new year. Forward pressure was in a league of its own.
If Dougal Howard was the ‘steal of the trade period’, then Butler was the Saints’ ace in the hole.
Still, no-one anticipated the full impact he’d bring to the senior side.
Butler hit the ground running after the season restart with an explosive two-goal outing and a glorious front-and-centre which marked him as not just a run-of-the-mill small forward.
The excitement only intensified as he wreaked havoc against his former side (three goals), electrified the Blues with a belting goal on the run and delivered a match-winning four in the heart-stopping win over Gold Coast.
Leading goalkicking honours in his first season at the club (27), coupled with his league-high tackles inside-50 (33) and third-placed pressure acts for all forwards in the competition (271) only show how much he’s loving his footy.
An All-Australian nomination has been the cherry on top.
But he's not the player to flaunt his individual successes, and is more than happy to shy away from any fanfare that comes his way.
Off the field, the modest Saint has similarly been quietly enjoying his time with his new teammates up at the club’s Noosa hub.
He’s bonded with Howard, Jack Steele, Logan Austin, Rowan Marshall and housemate Jack Bytel during his first, bizarre year in red, white and black, and on his days off can usually be found surfing with Bradley Hill and Zak Jones.
Intense table-tennis tournaments (a staple from his Richmond days, ask Jason Castagna), flogging skipper Jarryn Geary 10-nil in FIFA courtesy of an “unstoppable” alliance with Callum Wilkie and teaching a few of the boys how to surf have also made up his days as the Saints’ northern stay extended from one month to three.
“We try and go out and hit the beach as much as we can,” Butler said.
“It’s good to get out and teach a few boys how to surf that are just learning and we just enjoy each other’s company.”
Butler has been a teacher to the playing group among the waves, particularly as the remodelled Saints' forward line continues to gel.
“I’ve just enjoyed playing in the forward line with new players and learning their new strengths, and it’s going to be pretty awesome playing under Max for the next how many years,” Butler said.
“Us older guys – me, Membrey and Lonie – I suppose the leaders of the forward line, have tried to help him out in his first year and keep pumping him up because we know he’s going to be a superstar of the future.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him in the pre-season and watching him grow has been pretty exciting, and just to be able to play so many games with him and see him develop is something I’m really proud of.
“Playing with new teammates you want to earn their respect play training hard and playing well, so that’s something I’ve focussed on and I just try and help the younger boys develop as well."
There’s no question as to whether or not he’s gained that respect.
Now, his dedication has paid off in a big way. There’s another finals series – his first since his premiership year – in his sights, and he’s ready to seize the opportunity.
“It’s pretty special,” Butler said.
“I was lucky enough to play in the 2017 finals series with the Tiges and then on the flipside missed out completely last year, so I’ve kind of experienced it from both spectrums.
“Just to get back in finals in such a long time and see all the smiles we’re putting on Saints fans back home is pretty exciting and something I can’t wait for.”