The 2019 NHL Draft is not one filled with defensive talents like 2018’s was. There is no real equivalent to Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, Adam Boqvist, or Quinn Hughes, who all went very early last year — except for Bowen Byram.
Byram represents the main hope for organizations looking to furnish their back end with a blue-chip prospect, one who has a realistic shot at acting as a top-pairing defender for years in the NHL.
Birthplace: Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada
Weight: 192 lbs.
Team: Vancouver Giants
He followed a solid first season in the Western Hockey League with an elite one. He had the second-most points on his team, the Vancouver Giants, and more than doubled the production of the next closest defenceman.
Looking at the entire league, he finished as the defenceman with the third-most points in the WHL while being approximately two years younger than the other blue-liners ahead of him. His impressively high goal total for a defenceman (26) also led all backs in all three Canadian Major Junior leagues.
Byram had a similar U18 season, production-wise, to Ty Smith’s last year, though Smith only scored 14 goals. In the past 10 years, only Jake Bean, drafted 13th overall in 2016, came close to that goal-scoring mark, with 24. Byram will go well before that, as there is not much he lacks.
He has size, standing at 6’1’’ with some muscle built onto that frame already. He is solid on his skates and rarely gets overpowered in battles. For that reason, the professional game does not seem far away for the defenceman.
He is also quick and agile; not to the level of a Quinn Hughes, but enough for those aspects of his skating to be a slight advantage over opponents at the NHL level.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Future Considerations: #6
Hockey Prospect: #5
ISS Hockey: #3
McKeen’s Hockey: #4
NHL Central Scouting: #4 (NA skaters)
Byram likes to open his skates to face the net and maintain his passing options. He pushes with one skate while sliding with the other along the offensive blue line, escaping from the defenders sent to block him and opening up holes in the coverage. Behind his goal line, he can spin and cut back on forecheckers to gain enough space to pass the puck or join the rush.
Rush offence is really the bread and butter of Bowen Byram. Always looking to go on the attack, he will immediately support the breakout as a pass option, coming in while trailing the play to get a shot on net with a catch-and-release motion, or send a return pass to a teammate in a better position for a scoring chance. He can also carry the puck up himself, piercing through a neutral-zone defence.
Considering how much the defenceman loves to join the offence, he could look to add an extra gear to his straight-away speed to better bring that aspect of his game to the NHL. It would allow him to free himself of the speedier backcheckers in the top league to continue to drive up the ice as he currently does.
Even if there will be fewer occasions for Byram off the rush in a couple of years, he will remain a smart passer, and will therefore be a key part of a team’s transition game.
The defenceman has good habits. He consistently checks for forechecking pressure and pass options when he is about to get the puck low in the defensive zone. It allows him to accurately decide the best course of action by either holding on to the puck or giving it away quickly to find a breakout route.
He has a lot of poise in possession. Forechecking pressure doesn’t faze him, and that translates to an above-average success rate on riskier plays. In other words, he often connects with his F1 in the middle of the ice to allow his team to exit the zone. He is not one to ‘‘pass a problem.” He wants to play offence. He knows that rimming pucks to covered wingers will only have him spend more time defending after turnovers.
Once in the offensive zone, the play runs through Byram, especially on the man advantage. This season, the Giants used fluid positioning in the other team’s end. They constantly switched with one another, moving the defensive box until they broke down the coverage.
Byram could start at the point and skate down to the half-wall where he dropped possession to a teammate skating the other way. In this interchangeable formation, he was just as much a shooting threat as a passing one, preferring wristers to the traditional slapshots of blue-liners to get the puck off his stick more quickly.
Every game he stood out from other defencemen with his confidence, patience, and vision; similar qualities that lead to his success on the breakout.
Watch him move a defender to the wall by faking a shot on net, only to gain a step on him, attack the middle, and start a tic-tac-toe play to get his team on the board. Even surrounded by opponents, the defenceman held on to the puck an extra half-second to allow the passing lane to the right circle to open.
Byram is deservedly called an offensive defenceman and is the most gifted one in this 2019 draft class, but unlike many other offensively minded blue-liners, he can also be trusted defensively. It is not the strongest part of his game, but he has been relied on for long minutes against top opposition and continues to be a regular penalty-killer for the Giants as they compete in the playoffs.
The main weakness in Byram’s defensive game is his lack of urgency, a common one for many young defencemen. Plays develop quickly even at the Junior level, and he could gain from being more on his toes, scanning the ice, first on loose pucks, and with his stick leading the way to cut passing lanes and limiting opposing forwards’ options.
Byram shows good defensive posture and tracking on many occasions (especially in his defence off the rush), but should continue to work to make it a consistent habit. It would help him break up opposing attempts more efficiently, which would directly feed into his transition game. It would also go a long way in helping him become a two-way defender who can be placed on the ice against the quickest-thinking and -moving forwards at the NHL level.
Bowen Byram’s advanced metrics
He ranks very high on almost all areas related to the transition element of the game. He gets the puck out of the zone with regularity and does so with a pass or carry the majority of the time. In the offensive zone, his expected primary assists and goals show him to be a dual-threat: both a passer and a scorer.
In the eight games tracked, Byram didn’t show himself to be a volume shooter, even if his 193 shots on net over the season would suggest that he does get his fair share of pucks on net. But his love for jumping up from the blue line to attack the slot was reflected in his high-danger shots per 60 minutes.
On defence, the opposition tended to rush the puck more on his partner’s side; another argument in favour of the defenceman’s ability to close his gap and break plays between blue lines. Once the puck was dumped in the zone as a result of this strong gap, however, he was rarely able to be first on it to gain possession.
Being the most high-profile defenceman in the draft with many teams needing help on the back end will certainly play a part in his early selection in June. But the high pick used on him will be warranted. The prospect’s great skill set will allow him to bolster any team’s transition from the back end.
Bowen Byram might not step onto an NHL blue line as soon as next year, but another year of Junior should help him round out his game, add even more creativity to his offence, and, most of all, establish himself as one of the premier defencemen outside the NHL.