We submit yet another piece of evidence that the blueprint for the ideal NHL defenceman today and beyond has changed for the smaller, the quicker, and the more offensive-minded.
As Boston’s 5-foot-9 Torey Krug explodes for four-point games and St. Louis’s six-foot Vince Dunn provides the jolt among Blues giants in the sport’s championship showcase, the top defensive prospect in this month’s NHL Draft explains how he’s trying to model his game after that of 6-foot-1 Morgan Rielly.
“I like watching him. He plays on a really good team. Good on both sides of the puck. Kills penalties. Plays the power play. That’s where I want to be, hopefully,” Bowen Byram said Monday in St. Louis, where the top five North American prospects were invited to view Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
A native of Cranbrook, B.C. — a day’s drive from Rielly’s home in Vancouver — Byram was raised a Canucks fan, naturally, but found himself tuning into Toronto Maple Leafs broadcasts to study Rielly’s positioning and decision-making.
“Definitely when he’s on the ice, I like watching him, but I usually get watching some of the other guys, too. But I try to watch him,” Byram said. “A multi-tool player. Hopefully something I can grow into.”
A surprise Brian Burke selection at No. 5 overall in the 2012 class, and another Western League star in his youth, Rielly’s development curve — fleet-of-foot offensive D-man learns first to defend pros, then steadily rises to become both an offensive and shutdown threat — has become a prototype for those younger.
Just last summer, Montreal lefty D-man Victor Mete, 20, told us how he, too, used Rielly as his template, and they play for heated rivals.
The six-foot, left-shot Byram, who will celebrate his 18th birthday next week, is both the top-rated Canadian and top-rated defenceman heading into Vancouver on June 21.
He could be drafted as high as third overall, the slot where the Chicago Blackhawks pick, but there’s a chance he could slip a spot or two if GM Stan Bowman opts for a centre.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hawks grab [Island Lake, Illinois, native Alex Turcotte] at three,” said projected No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a close friend of Turcotte’s. “Hometown kid. Unbelievable player, great year, and I’m really excited to see where he could go.”
Byram, much like Rielly, is coming off the best season of his life, exploding for 71 points in 67 games the WHL powerhouse Vancouver Giants. His 26 goals from the back end, like Rielly’s 20 for the Leafs, led all defencemen in his league.
Then he went ahead and topped everyone in playoff scoring with 26 points in 22 games, leading the Giants within a win of the title.
“Pretty cool. I don’t think it could’ve worked out more perfect for me. Obviously, I would’ve liked to win the Western League championship, but someone’s gotta lose,” said Byram, still eligible for juniors in 2019-20. “We’ll be back next year.”
The teenage son of early-’90s cup-of-coffee NHLer Shawn Byram, Bowen also helped Team Canada secure a gold medal at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
The feisty Alex Burrows and the Sedin twins were Byram’s boyhood heroes, his favourite moment arriving when Burrows scored the Game 7 overtime winner versus Chicago in the 2011 Western Conference quarterfinal, en route to Vancouver reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canucks, who hold the 10th pick, were one of 11 clubs Byram met with at last week’s combine in Buffalo. (Montreal, way back at No. 15, didn’t bother.)
Byram chuckled at the idea of Jim Benning and the group of scouts he chatted with in Buffalo being tempted to trade up and get him.
“It was really good. There were lots of great guys in that room, lots of cool people to meet. It was a good conversation,” said Byram, who will be in the Rogers Arena stands with a healthy show of support from friends and family making the short trek. “They were my favourite team growing up, so for it to be held in that rink will be pretty special.”
The L.A. Kings, at Pick No. 5, flew both president Luc Robitaille and GM Rob Blake to meet with their potential selection. Byram slots as Los Angeles’s pick on many a mock draft, and considering Rielly also went fifth overall, there might be some kismet at play here.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Byram said.
“I’ve done all I can. I’ve had my meetings, I played all year, so now it’s just sitting back and enjoying the experience.”