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It takes a certain kind of calm demeanor and understated confidence to be one of the top prospects in the NHL Draft and still somehow be flying under the radar.
That confidence took a few minutes to start to come out as Bowen Byram began reflecting on a great season for his Vancouver Giants team, whose season finished with a Game 7 overtime loss in the WHL Championship. It’s obvious in his voice the 10 days that have passed haven’t quite dulled the disappointment of defeat.
“When you get that close and don’t get to achieve the goal of winning like we had from the start of the year, it definitely makes you a lot hungrier, not that we weren’t hungry this year,” Byram said. “There’s a lot of guys on our team that gained a lot of experience through the playoffs this year so hopefully that will help us in the next year for sure.”
Before getting to next year, though, it’s time for the consensus top defenseman in this year’s draft to reflect back on a season that saw him accomplish quite a bit. He took a major leap in production in his second season with the Giants as he scored 71 points (26g, 45a) in 67 games played. He saved his best for the brightest, however, and his 26 points in the playoffs led all players, becoming the first defenseman to ever lead the WHL playoffs in scoring.
“It’s a pretty cool stat,” Byram told BSN Denver. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates for sure. We had such a good team. We had such good depth. I think that kind of reflects on us as a team. We weren’t a team that had very many guys…no 30-goal scorers or anything like that. We scored by committee all year. We did that again in the playoffs. If you look, everyone was chipping in offensively so it made it a lot easier on me and the rest of the offensive guys on the team.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that when asked to describe his own game, Byram immediately brought up more of an offensive-oriented player.
“I think I’m kind of an offensive defenseman but I also take pride in my own end,” he said. “I can play pretty well both sides of the puck. I can play power play and penalty kill. I love to be up in the rush and I love to create offense. When I’m needed to play tight defense, I can do that as well.
I think my vision and my hockey sense is one of my stronger attributes so I think that can kind of falls into place. We had a really good power play this year. It really clicked in the playoffs and I think we were around 35% at one point. I had some unbelievable players on my unit and it made it a lot of fun. Power plays can be a lot of fun when you have players who can move the puck around a lot. It was definitely something I take pride in.”
While digging into his own game, the topic of his skating inevitably came up. Colorado has talked a big game about going after great skaters in the draft but outside of Cale Makar in 2017, they haven’t really targeted players whose skating is considered a significant trait in the first round. That could change with Byram, who is considered a great skater in his own right.
“I definitely don’t think I’m on [MacKinnon’s] level,” Byram admitted. “MacKinnon’s probably one of the better skaters in the world. I have a pretty long stride. I’m a bit of a lanky guy so I try to use my long stride to my advantage. I think my first couple strides is where I gain most of my speed so I try to be real explosive off the first couples steps. After that, try to cross over to gain some speed if I can. It’s definitely something I think I can work on and get better at for sure. I think there’s still a high ceiling for my skating.”
Every draft season, you find people making comparisons between draft prospects and established NHL players. It drives some people crazy but it’s simply a way to give an idea of what kind of player the prospect might be once he gets into the NHL. For Byram, one of the comparisons you hear most often is Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, he himself a product of the WHL. There’s a pretty good reason that’s one of Byram’s comps – he actively models his game after the young defender.
“Morgan Rielly. He’s good on both sides of the puck,” Byram said. “He can run a power play, he kills penalties. He plays well defensively as well as offensively. He’s definitely a guy I watch a lot. I also read a lot of articles talking about how great of a leader he is, how great of a guy he is. Definitely a guy I can learn things from and also a guy I can look at and take some things from his game and put into mine.”
As one of the leaders on the Giants this past season, Byram’s job is going to take another step forward next year as he tries to lead them back to another deep run in the WHL postseason. Just don’t expect him to be quiet about it.
“I’m a pretty vocal guy, honestly,” Byram said. “I’m always chatting throughout the game on the ice, in the dressing room and whatnot. I always have been. It’s been that way for me forever and I just love socializing so that just kind of leads right into the ice. I also try to lead by example. Obviously, my job sometimes is a little different than other guys but I just try to work hard and be one of the hardest working guys on the ice or in the gym. Whenever I’m at the rink, I try to be a hard worker and lead by example.”
One of the challenges in getting through the WHL playoffs was going against so many great players. This year’s draft class is WHL-heavy and as many as four players from the league could be drafted in the top 10 with many more to follow. Who was his toughest matchup?
“There’s a lot of guys my age, for sure. Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Peyton Krebs. Those are just three names there. There’s also a couple of really good goalies in our league that are going to be draft-eligible. It’s definitely a big year for the Western league. I think it’s kind of unique. All of us came up in the same crop of guys and playing together at U-17s, U-18s. It should be fun being around all my buddies at the draft and the combine so I’m excited for that.”
At the top, it looks like Dach and Cozens have separated themselves and many have speculated they are in play for the Avalanche with the fourth pick, along with Byram himself. How do Dach and Cozens differ in the eyes of a guy who has to defend against both?
“They’re a bit different,” Byram began. “Cozens uses his skating ability and his big body to get to the net to create chances and to use his shot to score goals. I think Kirby is a bit more of a playmaker. He sees the ice really well and he has really good hands. They’re both different in their own ways but they’re also both really great talents. Watching them and playing against them is really fun.”
Byram will join Cozens, Dach, and Krebs at the NHL Combine next week as they show off their athletic prowess as well as go through the uncomfortable process of team interviews.
Most teams go into the combine with their draft lists pretty well polished by this point but the interview process can have a drastic effect on what players teams prioritize come draft. This was certainly the case for the Avalanche back in 2016 when Tyson Jost won them over with a fantastic interview and solidified their desire to take him 10th overall that year. Byram will try to have a similar effect on a team.
“I want to have a good showing at the combine,” Byram said. “It’s kind of tough for me. I just finished my season not too long ago so trying to find the right mixture of rest and also training for the combine so obviously, I want to have a good showing with that. Like I said, I’m excited to see some buddies I haven’t seen for a while when I’m there. It’ll be good to chat with some teams. It’ll be a pretty cool opportunity for me to meet GMs of NHL teams and head scouts and whatnot. I might be in a bit of awe while I’m there but it should be a good experience and I’ll try to soak it all in.”
One thing Byram was able to soak in already was Colorado’s surprising playoff run. While his team was still in the playoffs and he kept plenty busy, he was playing mostly on the weekend so he had an opportunity to watch plenty of the NHL postseason but Colorado stood out to him.
“I was watching a lot of playoff hockey during the week when we were practicing,” Byram explained. “I watched a lot of Colorado games and they’re an entertaining team to watch with MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog and a couple of their defensemen that jump into the play as well. They’re a fast team with lots of skill so they were definitely one of the more entertaining teams to watch throughout the playoffs.”
Colorado’s reputation as a fast team makes them appealing to a lot of players who like to play a similar style of game and Byram certainly fits that bill. While Colorado has two young stud defenders already grooming in Sam Girard and Cale Makar, the NHL is one of those leagues that lives by the old adage “you can never have too much defense”.
The Avs are also facing some question marks with Tyson Barrie’s future uncertain, Erik Johnson’s uneven season bringing into question his long-term effectiveness, and an expansion draft two years from now looming over every decision made by every team. Colorado’s current defensive depth could be a thing of the past in a much shorter timeline than it took to build it.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out,” Byram said. “If [Colorado] were to pick me, it would be pretty cool. Obviously, they’re a really good team right now and they should be for years to come. Obviously, I’d have a lot of work ahead of me trying to crack that lineup in the next couple years but they have some really good players that would be exciting to play with at some point in time. Like you said, Girard, Barrie, Makar. Their roster is definitely pretty exciting to look at from my standpoint so we’ll just see how the draft goes.”
Colorado is in the unique position of drafting in the top five while also coming off a second-round playoff appearance. What that means for whoever they draft fourth overall could be a moving target as they are much better than the teams usually drafting in that position but their current talent could slow down the timeline to bring the fourth pick into the NHL simply because they have the luxury of not feeling rushed. For Byram, it’s a question he’s struggled with all season.
“I’ve been asked this question quite a bit this year,” he said. “Obviously, I want to play in the NHL as soon as possible so it’s definitely in my mind that I want to play in the NHL next year but sometimes you have to be realistic and realize how hard it really is. I’m not too sure how to answer this question. I want to play in the NHL as soon as possible so I’ve got to put the work in, train hard, and develop my skills to hopefully put myself in position, if not this year then hopefully next year, to crack the lineup.”
While the offensive side of his game obviously blossomed this past year, there’s work to be done on the defensive end of his game and that may be the area that keeps him from making an immediate jump to the NHL.
“Defensively for sure,” Byram said of his biggest area for improvement today. “I think I can get better, my whole game can get better. Defensively is something I’ve been keying on and my strength. Moving on, I’d be playing bigger, stronger, older guys so those are a couple things I think I’m going to have to key in on to make the jump from junior to the NHL.”
Should Colorado select Byram and eventually promote him to the NHL, he could find himself on a pairing next to a bright star or two that already calls Denver home. Does he have a preference?
“I really haven’t thought about that yet,” Byram said. “To be honest, I don’t think it really matters much to me. I like to share the puck. I move the puck pretty well so having a defensive partner that can do that as well. I think there’s a couple of guys that would complement me pretty well on that team already. If I am drafted there, obviously that would be a coach’s decision but I think there could be a couple of guys I’d be pretty excited to play with. Barrie, for example, Makar. It will be interesting if I do end up going there.”
*Callie Agnew contributed to this story