In what turned out to be a controversial Game 3, defenseman Samuel Girard cruelly suffered a season-ending injury after he was crushed into the boards by St. Louis Blues center Ivan Barbashev early in the proceedings. For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, the Colorado Avalanche are in tough to replace the puck-moving prowess offered by the slight blueliner. Fortunately, the team has a qualified internal candidate in 20-year-old Bowen Byram, who could have a breakout postseason despite the unfortunate circumstances. Let’s dig into what the Avalanche are missing in Girard’s absence, and how Byram is more than capable of filling the sizeable void on the blue line.
Girard Injury Leaves Big Hole on Avalanche Blue line
There’s no dancing around it, the loss of Girard is a monumental one for the Stanley Cup hopefuls. While Devon Toews and Norris Trophy favourite Cale Makar earn much of the plaudits, the 24-year-old blueliner does a good deal of heavy lifting away from the spotlight. His point totals (28 in 67 games this season) don’t scream superstar, but he is a key cog in the Avalanche’s high-flying transition game. One of his strengths comes in generating clean zone exits off of retrieving dump-ins, where he outmatches his seemingly peerless teammate.
According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Girard completed the 10th-highest rate of zone exits and retrievals this season while doing so with possession at one of the best marks in the league at over 67 percent. He often utilizes his patented spin move and diminutive frame to evade forecheckers and create numerical mismatches off the rush. It’s an underrated skill that goes unnoticed until things go wrong, but it’s one the Avalanche will sorely miss for the rest of the postseason.
On top of his excellence in transition, Girard’s partnership with Josh Manson owned a 55.4% share of shot attempts (CF%) and a 50.9% claim of expected goals (xGF%) in the playoffs so far. Those marks are the lowest on the Avalanche in this postseason, but they still tilted the ice in their favour in second-line matchups.
For all of the consternation surrounding Girard’s ability to thrive under more rigorous playoff conditions, he’s been the ideal second-pair defenseman to carry out the Avalanche’s rush-heavy attack. In spite of his inexperience, Byram has shown flashes of the potential which made him the fourth-overall selection in the 2019 Entry Draft. With Girard on the shelf, he’ll need to adapt quickly for them to progress past the Blues and the stats say he is more than capable of succeeding in his stead.
Byram Flashed Tantalizing Potential Before Early-Season Injury
Although Byram’s 2021-22 regular season was hampered by worrying concussion issues, his play while healthy should give the Avalanche belief in his ability to elevate his game as required. He formed one half of a formidable third pair with grizzled veteran Erik Johnson and the duo consistently drove play in sheltered minutes against weaker competition.
Among pairs with at least 100 5v5 minutes together, they controlled 60.5% of shot attempts (CF%), 65.1% of scoring chances (SCF%), and 57.9% of expected goals (xGF%), ranking seventh, fourth, and 29th respectively. Including all of his 5v5 ice time, Byram ranked 43rd in CF% (53.3%), 11th in SCF% (57.3%), and 94th in xGF% (50.8%). It’s important to remember that he is not tasked with the most difficult matchups, but he’s performed well for a rookie at a position with a notoriously steep learning curve.
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Byram only featured in 30 regular-season games in 2021-22, but his efficient production suggests there is another gear left to hit on offence. In terms of per-60-minute stats at 5v5, the blossoming defenseman ranked 11th in primary assists, fourth in total assists, fifth in points, and eighth in individual scoring chances. This is a star in the making, and one crying out for greater usage. With Girard out for the remainder of the postseason, he might just get his breakout moment yet.
Byram Thriving in NHL Playoff Debut
Now, it’s one thing to succeed in the regular season but to do so in the playoffs is an entirely different endeavour. Teams are giving it their all on a nightly basis and there are no sheltered minutes. Opposing coaches can pinpoint matchups that are ripe for exploitation, and rookie blueliners are as vulnerable as they can get. Even so, Byram hasn’t looked out of place under the spotlight through the first two rounds, and it’s the most persuasive bit of evidence for giving him more responsibility in the wake of Girard’s injury.
In what is a continuation of their regular-season success, Byram and Johnson have feasted on opposing matchups lower down the lineup. Among defensive pairs with at least 20 5v5 minutes, the Byram-Johnson pairing has controlled 69.5% of CF (second), 62.4% of xGF (eighth), and 73.3% of SCF (second). Outside of their sterling chance and possession numbers, the duo has helped the Avalanche outscore opponents 5-to-1 when they take to the ice. With the superstars taking care of business at the top, having a functional third pair is crucial in making a deep playoff run. It helps that the pair of defensemen at opposite ends of their careers share an undeniable chemistry.
Byram has effectively utilized his smooth skating to neutralize the opposition’s transition game thus far in the playoffs. On an Avalanche blue line stocked with fluid skaters, the rookie defender owns a team-best carry-against ratio, only allowing opponents to enter the zone with possession on 41.4% of their attempts. It’s a key element of the team’s electric transition game, with timely breakups often acting as the catalyst for dangerous counterattacks.
Byram has only earned a single assist in seven games to this point, but Girard’s injury will open up an opportunity on the power play. He hasn’t been shy about firing shots at the net (fifth on the team in shots per-60) and should see more looks at the top of the lineup because of it. His most common forward linemates at 5v5 have been Nicolas Aube-Kubel (40 minutes), J.T. Compher (40), and Andre Burakovsky (36). Seeing as Girard saw extended time with each of Artturi Lehkonen (45 minutes), Nazem Kadri (45), and Gabriel Landeskog (40), there is an upgrade to be had. Expecting a rookie rearguard to seamlessly adapt to a top-four role is a tall order, but Byram has shown that he possesses the tools to thrive under pressure.
Avalanche’s Stanley Cup Hopes Still Alive
Even in the aftermath of Girard’s untimely injury, many still see the Avalanche as Stanley Cup favourites. Toews and Makar do most of the heavy lifting, and their presence can insulate Byram as he assumes a greater role in the lineup. The Avalanche attack is as fearsome as they come, and Darcy Kuemper looks like his steady self in the crease. That’s not to discount the impact of his absence, but the Avalanche succeeded all season with key contributors relegated to the sidelines. The march to the Stanley Cup is among the toughest championship journeys in sports, and the Avalanche’s response in Game 4 and beyond will dictate whether they have the pedigree to match. Is this the year the second-round curse and 21-year title drought are broken? We will just have to wait and see.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.