The Colorado Avalanche have signed top prospect Bowen Byram to a three-year entry-level contract. The deal will only kick in for the 2019-20 season if Byram plays in more than nine games at the NHL level.
The fourth-overall pick in June’s draft, Byram was the top defenseman selected and is coming off an incredible season with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. Playing this season at just 17 years old, Byram recorded 71 points in 67 games and led all players—defensemen or otherwise—in playoff scoring with 26 points. His upside as a puck-mover is unquestioned, but he’ll have to prove himself at Avalanche training camp before they hand him a full-time role in the NHL.
If he had been selected by another team, Byram’s chances at playing in the NHL for the entire 2019-20 season may have been higher. Colorado has built quite an impressive blue line over the last several years, and even after trading Tyson Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs still have eight or nine legitimate roster options. Ian Cole and Erik Johnson are expected to miss the start of the season with injuries, but that still leaves Cale Makar, Nikita Zadorov, Samuel Girard, Kevin Connauton, Mark Barberio, Calle Rosen and even Ryan Graves as possibilities, not to mention Conor Timmins if he can prove he’s healthy enough to contribute.
Though playing more than nine games would start Byram’s contract, teams around the league are worrying less and less about that threshold and more about the 40-game mark. That’s when the season would count towards his eventual unrestricted free agency status, meaning there is a scenario where the young defenseman plays more than nine and still returns to junior eventually. The team could potentially keep him until Cole or Johnson (or both) are set to return, and then potentially even send him to the World Juniors in December to delay the junior decision even further. Once they return him to the Giants they can’t recall him, making it an even tougher decision.
Even if Byram does return to the CHL at the beginning of the season, he represents another high-end piece for the Avalanche to build around. With Nathan MacKinnon still just 23 and Mikko Rantanen 22, there are good times coming in Colorado.