Basking in the glow of a Stanley Cup Final berth, 34-year-old Erik Johnson reflected on the length of his career — nearly 900 games — and how grateful he felt to finally have a chance to play for a championship. Then, speaking to reporters, he thought about his youngest teammate, who doubles as his defensive partner.
“I look at Bo, and he’s had 30 games and one year,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘You’re lucky, man.’”
Technically Bowen Byram has played 49 games over two seasons, but Johnson’s point stands: The former Vancouver Giants star, who’s turning 21 on Monday, is relatively new to the league, and he has only been on playoff teams since arriving in the NHL. Now he’s set to play in the Stanley Cup Final as the Avalanche try to dethrone the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“A couple years ago I was playing junior, so it’s really unbelievable to think about, and it’s all gone by so fast,” Byram said Sunday in an interview with The Athletic. “I really try to stay in the moment and soak it all in, but there’s a lot of pressure and nerves and anxiety that comes along with it, so it’s really been a blur.”
Byram said he feels nerves most either ahead of series-opening contests or ahead of pivotal games in the series. The nerves fade after a shift or two, and he doesn’t see them as a bad thing. They mean he’s ready to go.
Through three rounds, he hasn’t looked at all hesitant. In fact, he’s been one of Colorado’s top players. As the pressure has gotten greater and greater throughout the playoffs — and as he’s stepped into a more important role with Samuel Girard out — he’s risen to meet the stage. Youth hasn’t been a dig.
“I’ve played in some big games: World Junior finals, Western League finals. Things like that just kind of prepare you for anything,” Byram said. “Obviously the Stanley Cup is a whole different animal, but I’ve just tried to reflect on past experiences and also learn during (the playoffs).”
Byram saw his responsibility skyrocket after Girard broke his sternum in Game 3 of the Avalanche’s second-round series against the Blues. In seven games since the season-ending injury, he has six assists and has averaged 19:33 of ice time, up from 15:49 the first seven games of the playoffs.
“I haven’t tried to do anything different: just trying to play my game, skate the puck, move the puck up to our forwards, play tight defensively,” Byram said earlier in the playoffs. “As everyone knows, having Sam out is a huge loss for our team. I said this previously: It’s not just one guy who is going to make up for it. It’s a collective group with six of us out there.”
Byram has made up a big part of that collective, so let’s examine what has made him so effective, with a deep dive into the video from the first three series.
The overwhelming majority of NHL rookies usually carry “new kid on the first day of school” type vibes. They’re walking on eggshells a little bit, just searching to fit in and desperately hoping not to make mistakes. It often takes these young players multiple years to feel established, comfortable and confident enough to open up and become difference makers in prominent roles.
Byram, however, bucks that trend. He’s oozed tremendous confidence and an effortlessly cool demeanor with every play he makes in these playoffs. Some NHL teams coin this attribute the “it” factor — a level of boldness and poise under pressure that typically requires hundreds of NHL games worth of experience to reach. Byram isn’t just content with playing safe, mistake-free hockey; he’s determined to legitimately move the needle on every shift.
That conviction, self-belief and mental makeup are the foundation underpinning all of his success with the puck in these playoffs — keep that in the back of your mind as we dig through the tape.
Physically, it should come as no surprise that Byram’s standout attribute has been his skating. Specifically, he’s shown a rare ability to explode out of turns with power, coupling that with lightning-quick crossovers for elite acceleration.
That’s helped him manufacture productive plays out of thin air. In the play below, Byram receives the puck and doesn’t have an obvious passing option. Evander Kane, a fast, powerful forechecker is breathing down Byram’s neck but the latter turns on a dime and leads a fantastic rush. He’s turned what would be a glass and out clear or simple D-to-D pass for 95 percent of NHL defenders into a zone entry with speed for his team.
“I just saw the wall was closed off, so I tried to spin out, move my feet, skate and then kick the puck out once they collapsed to the middle,” Byram explained.
That clip didn’t just showcase his elite turning and acceleration, but also his puckhandling skills. Some defensemen are elite skaters but don’t have the nimble hands to keep up and, as a result, are stripped of the puck easily. Byram keeps the puck tight to his body and has matured a lot since his WHL days with the Giants when he would often skate himself into trouble.
Byram’s ability to make bold plays without compromising his puck management is precious. Coaches hate risky turnovers more than they love dazzling rushes, so that balance has been integral for the trust he’s gained. Part of the credit for that also goes to the Avalanche themselves.
Colorado’s overall strength as a team has helped insulate Byram. He hasn’t had to make too many difficult zone exits under harshness in the defensive zone as the wingers are supporting well, always presenting themselves as passing options.
Byram’s partner Erik Johnson also deserves credit. Johnson’s often the first defenseman back to retrieve dump-ins and absorb the forecheck’s heaviest pressure.
“The biggest thing is he just stays even-keeled,” Byram said of Johnson. “He’s a huge part of our team.”
Here’s an example of that below. The puck is dumped into the corner on Byram’s side. Johnson, however, is the first man back to take Josh Archibald’s heavy hit and win the battle. That allows Byram to swoop in to collect the puck and carry it out of the defensive zone. Because Johnson was quick to jump up in the rush, Byram was able to make the easy pass to his partner to complete an excellent transition play for the team.
That kind of insulation isn’t always available to young defensemen. Just ask Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin, who hasn’t played with as strong a supporting cast in his first four seasons.
Another one of Byram’s standout traits is his knack for jumping up in the play. Joining the rush isn’t just about carrying the puck through the neutral zone. Often your quickness to get up the ice when you don’t have the puck can open up a ton of space for your teammates.
In this clip, all three Oilers forwards are caught deep so Byram is quick to dart up the weak side. This turns what would have been a 2-on-2 rush which would have been easy to defend into a much tricker 3-on-2. Byram doesn’t even touch the puck on the initial rush, but his mother presence as a passing option means that Edmonton’s defensemen can’t aggressively close on Mikko Rantanen, who gets a tremendous rush chance, with Byram earning a great rebound opportunity.
Here’s another example of Byram jumping up in the play, but this time he gets the puck on the entry and turns into a slot chance.
It’s equally important that he hasn’t put himself out of position to accomplish these plays. Byram is aggressive but responsible. The clip below demonstrates that. Erik Johnson has a simple pass to Andre Burakovsky, who has tons of time and space to make the play. But he fumbles the puck and turns it over. Nine times out of ten that’s an easy breakout. Byram was creeping up but attentive not to blow the zone early and was therefore in a good defensive position when Edmonton regained puck possession.
This kind of play is evidence of Byram’s two-way attention to detail. That’s served him well with his defensive game which hasn’t been perfect but advanced beyond his years. For as fun as it is to watch sexy rushes and elite offensive plays, his effective play without the puck has been critical for earning the coaching staff’s trust to play high-leverage minutes.
The way Byram helped the Avs close out a thrilling Game 1 victory over the Oilers showcased that. With Edmonton scoring a late goal to make it 7-6, Byram made two clutch defensive stops to help Colorado seal the win. In the following clip, Zach Hyman collects the puck after the face-off. Byram hounds him like a dog on a bone, laying a heavy check on the power forward to pin him against the boards. Byram continues jostling and eventually wins the puck back, which allows Nazem Kadri to clear play out of the defensive zone.
Then, on his final shift of the game, Byram aggressively gaps up on Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl, who was trying to enter the zone so Edmonton could pull Mikko Koskinen, is forced to retreat and circle back. When Draisaitl dumps the puck in, Byram hustles back and wins the wall battle against Connor McDavid, which again allows Colorado to clear.
“They had a couple real good players, and that always makes stuff more nerve wracking,” said Byram, but he didn’t show those nerves going up McDavid and Draisaitl.
Byram’s anticipation has also become an asset in the defensive zone. He can read the play before it develops and then leverage his quick skating to close time and space. On this play, he reads Edmonton’s options on the dump-in and immediately signals to Arturri Lehkonen to be ready for the potential pass to Kailer Yamamoto. Because Byram knows the weak side is taken care of, he pounces on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, stripping him of the puck to stop the cycle from developing.
“Whenever you’re coming back in your own zone, you’ve got to communicate where people are going, who’s got what guy,” Byram said. “That’s just part of the game. Trying to talk a lot and trying to make it easier for everyone around you.”
Byram has made the occasional defensive mistake, as any young player would, but he doesn’t get down on himself for them. “Dwelling on something doesn’t do anything,” he said. And on the whole, he’s been sturdy and reliable. That’s benefitted his offensive game, too. Watch how Byram snatches David Perron’s flip pass attempt out of midair and then parlays that into a composed bank pass for an assist on Nathan MacKinnon’s opening goal in Game 5 against St. Louis:
Speaking of Byram’s offensive impact, his intelligence in the attacking zone is a distinguishing quality. Some players skate really well but move in predictable patterns that are easy to defend. Byram is a creative, calculated attacker who’s always scanning for the next threat and how he can be involved in it.
In this play, Byram gets the puck in a position where most defenders would shoot. Instead, he walks the line to buy time for Burakovsky to loop from behind the net and emerge as a passing option. As soon as Burakovsky is free, Byram fires the puck and it results in a Grade-A scoring chance.
Byram’s patience with the puck was also evident in Game 4 against St. Louis. Playing on the power play, he waited for the perfect moment to thread the needle to set up Kadri’s goal.
“It was just a rebound that kicked out to me,” said Byram. “I had a little bit of space there, and then I saw Naz open on the other side. I tried to get it to him and he did the rest.”
The bigger the moment, the better Byram has looked this season. After a solid but not incredible training camp, he scored in Colorado’s first game of the year, then proceeded to look like a Calder Trophy contender before a concussion derailed his regular season. When Girard went down against St. Louis, Byram stepped up. He’s gotten better as the playoffs have gone on, and he’s working to make that trend continue.
“It’s been huge just trying to learn throughout the playoff run: really watch a lot of video on myself, see what I’m doing well, see what I’m doing not so well and just try to keep going,” he said.
After the Avalanche closed out Edmonton in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Byram walked toward the dressing room screaming with joy. He lets out a “wooo!” as he threw his arms around Shawn Allard, the Avalanche skills coach who helped him get back in shape as he recovered from his concussion.
Now bigger games await, and the Avalanche’s youngest player is approaching them with maturity.
“Everyone is inexperienced until they win a Cup anyway,” Byram said. “You’ve got to do it some way.”
(Top pic: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY)