After being spoiled with an abundance of defensemen taken in the top-ten just a year ago, the 2019 draft class holds only one prized blue-liner worthy of such a high pick: Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants. Quite simply, the best defensemen in the draft, and it’s not particularly close.
Back in December, I would have told you Byram had some serious competition coming. But January on he solidified his place in my rankings — showcasing much more than solid puck moving. The biggest question surrounding Byram was if he had enough offense in him to be a legitimate top-pair defensemen. He shut-down those query’s with exceptional play in both ends of the rink, proving he doesn’t need flash to control a game, but rather with his intelligence.
|Birthday||June 13, 2001|
Skating: 55 – Puck Skills: 55 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 70 – Physicality: 55
Byram’s hockey IQ is the best of any player in this draft. He thinks the game at an exceptional level. The play slows down for him when looking to make a play. This has allowed him to be an incredible decision maker. Playing huge minutes in the WHL, he was often presented with the customary plays that make up a game. Little things like clearing the puck off the boards, pinching at the right time, or being in position to break up a pass is something Byram has significantly grown at. He showed the ability to defend well and projects to be a 20 plus minute a night defensemen.
Byram thrives under pressure. Some players are born for the big stages, seemingly coming through when needed most. Time and time again, Byram was there to answer the call. Be it his WHL playoff campaign where he put up 26 points in 22 games, connecting on a seam pass in the dying seconds of a Hlinka Gretzky Cup elimination game, or potting 6 overtime goals in the WHL — a single season league record.
His offensive instincts are top-notch. Like I said, Byram reads the play so well and knows how to pick his spots. He can lead the rush or complement the play as a trailer. His timing is perfect because he is able to anticipate what is to come. He will fit into any offense because he can adapt to the play at hand so well.
The hockey IQ and sense that Byram has is elite. Every high-end play he makes is calculated and is the result of a play he identified with his mind.
The tools that Byram possesses are above-average, but are not responsible for the high-end plays he makes. It all comes down to how well he understands the game. His elite hockey IQ maximizes everything out of his tools. He doesn’t stand out in the way that Rasmus Dahlin or Quinn Hughes does with flashy hands or electrifying skating. What he has is good enough to get the job done, but his hockey IQ makes it so that he is getting the job done constantly.
That type of next-level smarts culminated into a fantastic season in the WHL. For the Vancouver Giants, Byram registered 26 goals and 71 points in 67 regular season games. Those 26 goals were the most by an under-18 defensemen in the WHL since Ian White scored 32 goals back in the 2001-02 season. Byram exploded in January and never looked back, asserting himself as the clear best defensemen in the draft. Showing improvement and progression as the season goes on is something I love to see.
Statistics via eliteprospects.com
As mentioned before, 6 of those goals for Byram came in overtime. The clutch gene that Byram has showed well in the extra session because he is tremendous at recognizing space and finding those areas. His mobility and smarts made him a dangerous scoring threat because he can take advantage of the extra space.
Byram has everything needed to become a top-pair defensemen in the NHL one day. His flawless decision-making in both big and small moments makes him a reliable blue-liner who can be deployed for 20 plus minutes a game. His offensive instincts get the most out of his tools, making him a very effective player. The lack of flash or an elite tool may hold him back from ever being that true superstar number one defensemen, but he is certainly capable of playing top-pair on a contending team.
These types of players don’t last very long in the draft and neither will Byram. He is a top-5 worthy player because of his elite ability to process and control the game with his mind.
Playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old defensemen is a very difficult task. It’s a position that requires a little more patience. The league can be quite overwhelming for them, and that’s why only elite talents can last in that situation. I believe Byram can be one of those players. His intelligence will give him a chance to stick. He is too smart and adaptive to at least not have a chance of performing well, relative to his age. Obviously, if he is just getting by, he’d be better off playing in the WHL. But I think there is a good chance he can make an impact as soon as next season. He’ll figure things out quickly.
If not, he’ll return to the Giants for next season with hopes of winning a Memorial Cup. The unfortunate part is there isn’t much left for Byram to prove in the junior league. He has already dominated the competition and is only getting better. But if the NHL proves to be a little out of reach, returning to the WHL isn’t the end of the world.