Bowen Byram Is Bright Spot on Avalanche Blue Line

To say that the Colorado Avalanche is experiencing an unexpectedly turbulent start to the season is putting it lightly. The 2020-21 Presidents’ Trophy winners’ 3-4-0 record and accompanying minus-6 goal differential is a jarring reversal from the comprehensive dominance enjoyed by last season’s outfit. A preposterous blend of injuries, suspensions, and COVID protocol limitations has prevented the team from icing anything approaching a full lineup, and many of Colorado’s stars have struggled to find their footing. Luckily, the franchise’s latest blue line gem in Bowen Byram has stepped up admirably and offers a glimmer of hope amidst the early strife. Let’s break down his production and on-ice impact thus far.

Byram’s Individual Production

Byram’s debut season was riddled with injuries that hampered his ability to regularly flex his creative muscle at the NHL level. To that end, the young blueliner’s early performances are reassuring votes of confidence for the direction of his development at both ends of the ice. His current trajectory better resembles the promise suggested of a player possessing his prestigious draft pedigree.

Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche
Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Colorado has leaned on Byram heavily at five-on-five, playing the still Calder-eligible defenseman for 17-and-a-half minutes a night – the 34th-highest average ice-time among all NHL rearguards. Even while facing steeper competition than in his rookie campaign, Byram has excelled at dictating play and driving offense for the Avalanche. His five points in seven games put him at a 58-point-pace and 13th in points-per-60 (P/60), he’s not just a glutton for calorie-free scoring. His efficient production shines through even when accounting for his increased workload, on average three minutes more per game than last season.

Among defenders with at least 30 5v5 minutes this season, Byram ranks 20th in expected goals (xGF%), 10th in Corsi for (CF%), and finds himself atop the NHL’s scoring chances ratio (SCF%) leaderboard. After a rocky start to his NHL career, he’s grown in confidence and pushed the pace with his timely bouts of aggression and adventurous forays into dangerous areas. Whether he’s searching for a chance to let loose or find a teammate, he’s a useful outlet for Colorado’s skilled forward group. It’s one thing to improve one’s offensive output, but it’s encouraging to see him make significant progress on the defensive end considering the historical struggles of young players upon entering the NHL. There’s no other way to say it, he’s been downright dominant and is making a case as an early Calder Trophy candidate.

Where Byram could stand to benefit in terms of his raw point totals is increased deployment on the power play. Unfortunately, barring an injury, Cale Makar has that spot locked down for the foreseeable future which limits his defense partner to a supporting role on the second unit where he’s only averaged 52 seconds per game on the man-advantage. The way he’s playing, head coach Jared Bednar might have no choice but to unleash the latest of his eager stallions.

Byram Supporting Struggling Makar

It’s not often that a rookie (by the NHL rulebook) outperforms a Norris Trophy finalist, but Byram is moving out of Makar’s shadow after the latter has struggled to recapture his All-NHL form from last season. As the following table demonstrates, Byram is hitting a new gear this year as a regular fixture on the Avalanche’s top defense pairing – even when skating away from Makar.

Makar w/ ByramByram w/o MakarMakar w/o Byram
Byram and Makar’s With or Without You (WOWY) numbers in terms of 5v5 on-ice rates

Byram has played 53% of his 123 total 5v5 minutes alongside Makar, with most of the remaining time spent under the wing of Colorado’s elder statesman, Erik Johnson. The pessimist points out that Makar is often tasked with competing against other team’s offensive wagons, and that Byram benefitted from feasting on weaker opposition to start the year. It stands to reason that Byram’s results are partially boosted by playing with the Avalanche’s four best skaters in the aforementioned Makar, and their buzzsaw of a first line.

Fair observations, but Johnson sees his on-ice results crater when separated from his protege. After accounting for two-thirds of all shots as a pair, the vet’s CF% tumbles to a much less impressive 46 percent, while Byram remains steady at 55 percent. Similarly, Johnson is out-chanced without Byram (47 SCF%), while the second-year dynamo maintains a 64 percent ratio without the presence of his mentor. Byram is currently Colorado’s second-most utilized defender, a trend that doesn’t look likely to end anytime soon. He’s posted better results away from his teammates than they have in his absence, making the case that Byram is an impactful contributor 26 games into his NHL career.

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Even with a strong start, Byram’s continued growth is unassured. If the franchise can handle the inevitable ebbs and flows inherent to a young defenseman’s development, their already esteemed blue line only becomes even more of an enviable ensemble of difference makers. The rich only get richer.

Byram’s Growth Advertises Limitless Potential

After being drafted fourth-overall in the 2019 Entry Draft, Byram’s tantalizing offensive potential functioned as a primary selling point to the fanbase. His production history at the junior level suggested that he could one day join Colorado’s revered stable of smooth-skating defensemen. Devon Toews’ absence has provided Byram with an opportunity to step into a role tailored for his aggressive play style. The early returns on investment are promising, and Colorado’s management group is likely rubbing their hands in anticipation of the emergence of yet another back-end star. Once the Avalanche machine accelerates, watch out.

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

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