Entering this season, Bowen Byram was projected as the top defenceman of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft after posting 27 points (six goals, 21 assists) in 60 games in his draft-minus-one season.
This season, Byram quickly separated himself from the rest of the defenders, solidifying himself as far and away the best defenceman in this draft class.
His game isn’t perfect but the minor flaws within it won’t hold him back, and his overall upside is so high that he could easily be the third player to hear his name called on day one of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
It’s time to take a deep dive into Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram.
- Age/Birthdate: 17 / Jun 13, 2001
- Birthplace: Cranbrook, BC, CAN
- Frame: 6-foot-0 / 194 lbs
- Position: Defence
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: Vancouver Giants (WHL)
- AMBHL Champion
- AMBHL Most Points by Defenseman (59)
- AMBHL Top Defenseman
- CSSHL Top Defenseman
- U16 WCCC Gold Medal
- U17 WHC All-Star Team
- U17 WHC Silver Medal
- Hlinka Gretzky Cup Champion
- Hlinka Memorial Gold Medal
- WHL Most Goals by Defenseman (26)
- WHL Playoffs Most Assists (18)
- WHL Playoffs Most Points (26)
2018-19 Stat Rundown
|GP||G||A||P||INV%||5v5 Pr INV%||5v5 ePr60||SEAL||Sh/GP||Sh%||5v5 eTOI||GF%||GF%rel||GD60 rel||XLS%||Top XLS%||XPR|
Bowen Byram has all the attributes that you are looking for in an offensive defenceman. His skating ability is the first thing that stands out. He has long and powerful strides that allow him to attack open space and push the pace on the ice. Byram has good balance, agility, and edge work that allows him to roll between forward and backward skating seamlessly to create separation from his opponents.
Then we get to his acceleration. To start the season, he was a little more timid in terms of those first few steps, and I believe that was in large part due to the Giants asking him to play a ton of minutes. But around the 25-game mark of the season, his average ice time was pulled back a little and he took a huge step forward in terms of displaying that two-step quickness.
The offensive zone is where Byram thrives, attaining dominance through his transition game or when his team has possession of the puck in formation. In transition, Byram is good at finding gaps and pushing his opponents back at such a rate that they have trouble reacting to his advances.
Once set up in the offensive end, Byram is not afraid to go for a skate around the zone with the puck. This forces his opponent to shift their coverage to take away the various passing lanes, and, above all else, not allow Byram to attack the net, knowing full well Byram will take advantage if given the opportunity.
One aspect that made him so effective and difficult to defend was that he was constantly evolving his strategy of attack. The variety of ways he pierced the defensive coverage to create scoring chances continued to grow as the year went along.
Bryam is also a fantastic passer and playmaker. When he recovers the puck in the defensive zone, he can make a perfect pass to his forwards in transition. He is also a great powerplay quarterback, using each of the aforementioned offensive tools to dictate what is happening on the ice.
The bottom line is that Byram has such high-end offensive tools, skating ability, and hockey IQ, that he can create plays any way he wants while out on the ice.
Despite being left-handed, Byram has played the right side during games on a fairly regular basis. He was frequently listed as playing on the left side but would be switching sides throughout contests as he cycled through partners.
In the intro, I mentioned that there are some flaws to his game. Often times when his flaws are brought up, there is immediate pushback because of his overall talent, but this is not meant to take away from the quality of player that he is. These are 18-year-old kids: There are going the be things that they need to work on to be as effective at the next level. The same can be said of the players that are expected to be selected ahead of Byram; there will be minor details to their game that they will need to work on.
With regard to Byram, there are relatively few attributes that are obvious candidates for improvement. The first is his passiveness in the defensive zone at times. Whether it be execution of team systems, his own inclination to conserve energy, or just waiting for the play develop, there are times when Byram lets the opponent create a play around him. This typically occurs when the Giants have been pushed back into their own zone and Byram has posted up on his side of the ice.
Mobile, puck-moving teams were able to move around where he was and exploit the open ice available to then attack with precision and speed, forcing the Giants to collapse and scramble. Byram is a fantastic skater and should be capable of being a little more active in terms of pushing opponents to the outside.
The left-handed defender is very effective along the boards in the defensive zone, particularly in terms of protecting the puck and then moving it to a teammate.
He isn’t afraid to jump into the rush, which in junior is easier to get away with but will need to be reigned in at the professional. Multiple times a game, Byram will just go when his teammate has the puck in their own zone. This can be fine, if the play is there; but there have been quite a few times where it isn’t.
The more visible issue is that Byram can occasionally skate himself into zero space. He is then forced to make a quick decision with the puck, sometimes giving it up in bad situations. He thinks the game extremely well, but at times it feels like his physical abilities get him into situations that are beyond his ability to get himself out of. This is in large part due to him having the puck on his stick so frequently and trying to create at every opportunity.
It’s important to reiterate that both of these flaws are fixable and I have little doubt that Byram will overcome them over the next couple of years of development.
Pointing out those minor issues should not paint a picture that he is inept defensively. Byram is effective at defending the blue line, using his skating strengths to force teams to dump the puck or using his willingness to close off their lane physically. His goals-for percentage and GF%rel illustrate just how well the team performed with Byram on the ice. This would be far more difficult if he was terrible in his own zone.
The clip below illustrates an example of what he can do well in the defensive zone:
Lastly, like the majority of 18-year-old defenceman, he will need to add some more strength to his frame over the next few seasons. But that isn’t a concern as he has the frame to effectively add it without taking away from his overall game.
Turning our attention to the numbers side of the analysis for Byram, there aren’t really too many surprises. Given the season that Byram had this year, everything looks promising.
Byram ended the regular season with the third-most points among WHL defencemen, the fourth-most shots, and the most game-winning goals. He led all of those categories among the first-time draft eligible WHL defencemen – and by a large margin. His 71 points this season were the highest among first-time eligible CHL defencemen, with a 13-points margin over second place Thomas Harley (Mississauga Steelheads, OHL). He also had nine more goals than second place Lassi Thomson when looking at that same peer group. Needless to say, he was in a class of his own offensively.
That production gives us the following result among his historical cohort:
With six matches, his entire cohort went on to becoming NHL regulars. With players like Byram, tools like pGPS can create a slanted view on what he is. The 100% success rate can create the impression that he’ll automatically be a star, but then looking at the names can tilt the mind in the other direction. For example, in no way do I see Byram becoming like Kris Russell, but the fact is they had similar production and physical attributes during their draft seasons.
It’s important to understand what that tool represents, and its potential limitations. When cohorts are particularly small, as in Byram’s case, it is all the more important to establish context and differentiate the individual from players who performed likewise statistically. Bowen Byram is really good: he is a unique player, and his standing among this draft class indicates he is going to be an NHL player for a long time.
Very early in the season, I did a post about Byram for The Athletic Vancouver (paywall) and mentioned that Byram wasn’t being particularly aggressive and didn’t appear to be “fleet of foot.” In hindsight, it was poor wording and made it seem like skating was something the defenceman needed to improve. That post was done after four games this season.
The observation made at the time appears in retrospect to be due to the fact that Byram was conserving energy due to the amount of ice time that was being asked of him.
We can see that his 5-on-5 estimated time on ice (eTOI) started to take a dip at around the 20-game mark and then stays below the 20-minute mark until the playoffs. That slight dip allowed Byram to take off offensively.
|Sample||Points per Game|
|First 22 Games||0.68|
|Remaining 67 games (including playoffs)||1.22|
The reduced workload, his improved confidence, and his renewed aggression allowed him to create more offence throughout games. It’s in part why he was able to score so many game winners – he had the energy to make the plays that he wanted. The Giants also added some more bodies on the backend at the trade deadline, allowing Byram to run rampant.
Entering into the playoffs, his ice time skyrocketed but he was clearly playing with so much confidence that it didn’t matter. He was the first defenceman to lead the WHL playoffs in scoring, accruing 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) in 22 games before the heartbreaking Game 7 overtime loss to Prince Albert.
Byram’s 5-on-5 estimated points per 60 minutes (ep60) fit in more with Vancouver’s forwards than with his fellow defencemen. His most common partner being Washington Capitals draft pick Alex Kannok-Leipart; those two were the first pairing for the Giants throughout their playoff run. Byram ended the regular season with a plus-27 goal differential.
In terms of SEAL, Byram ended the season with a SEAL adjusted scoring rate of 1.13, which was second among draft-eligible defencemen (to Finnish prospect Ville Heinola).
Needless to say, there is a lot to like about Byram’s game from an underlying-number standpoint, and the eye test confirms all of those beliefs. He is a dominant offensive defenceman at the junior level and has all the qualities to his game that make it easy to project him being effective at the NHL level.
When you are looking at a player of his ilk, you need to find some faults to his game to figure out what he will need to do to take that next step forward. But just mentioning them shouldn’t take away from what Byram is and will be.
He is the best defender in this draft class and could go as early as third overall.
Rolling Season Data
Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com and whl.ca.
You can check out some of Bowen Byram’s games at Prospectshifts.com. Some video was cut from there and others via WHL Live.
Founder and analyst for NextGenHockey.ca — Contributor to The Athletic Vancouver, EliteProspects, CanucksArmy, and Canucks.com.
Father of two and decent husband.
I watch the game.