If you look back to the Colorado Avalanche's disastrous 22-win season in 2016-17, it's easy to paint the defense as being this terrible monstrosity that would have been better served in the AHL.
But here we are, and the Avs have one of the most promising young defenders in Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar, a terrific secondary piece in Connor Timmins and some tremendous veterans in Erik Johnson, Ryan Graves and Devon Toews.
And there's Bowen Byram, one of the best defensive prospects in the entire NHL. Byram may not make the Avalanche on opening night without an injury to someone else, but Byram we're not far from finding out what he is capable of at the NHL level, and his performance early in camp speaks volumes about his capabilities.
Byram had the chance to suit up for the Avs in an exhibition contest prior to the 2020 playoffs in Edmonton and he didn't look out of place as a 19-year-old. But that's it for his game action since March, like most players, so it wasn't exactly clear how Byram was going to perform right out of the gate when Team Canada's world junior selection camp opened up last week in Red Deer.
"It's been so long since we've been in a competitive environment," Byram said. "It's been a lot of fun so far and through the process, it will be a good time."
But if it wasn't for Kirby Dach and his seemingly unstoppable scoring touch, Byram would have been Canada's best player through two intrasquad games. Byram recorded two assists in Sunday's 6-3 victory for Canada White, but Byram consistently showed up for every shift with great consistency and had no issue handling the Canada White's best players through two games.
That shouldn't come as a surprise. Byram was one of Canada's better defenders a year ago in the Czech Republic and has generally thrived through all levels of Canada. He and Jamie Drysdale are the only two defenders returning from the championship run from a year ago. and that experience will be important this time around. It helps when your best defender is back and it's even better when they're shining in a unique camp situation.
"He'll have a great pro career," Dach said. "He's got that mentality already."
With and without the puck, there's a lot to like about Byram's game. He can create offense from the blueline with patience – good passers wait for the right move, not the easiest to make a play – and that was evident in his two setup plays on Sunday. Byram also seemed to be the only defenseman that could force Dach to make mistakes with the puck, letting the Chicago Blackhawks forward have time with the disk before cutting in and catching him off guard. Byram gives opponents a false sense of security when they control the puck and it's so hard to predict what he'll do to stop them.
Byram is a near-shoo-in to play top pairing for Team Canada in Edmonton when the World Junior Championship opens up in December, and a strong performance could be a gateway to an opening-night roster spot on Colorado. He's far from a lock to play the whole season, and he might need an injury to someone in the lineup to force his way in, but when everything else is sitting at home and watching, Byram will be getting important reps in. If Byram goes on to have a monster tournament and lead Canada to a gold, his momentum might be worth carrying over into the season.
That's not his focus right now. Instead, it's about chasing another gold and being a leader in a year where most of the roster hasn't played in a competitive setting for months. An 11-game exhibition stretch allows Canada an opportunity to prepare, and Byram already looks in peak form compared to the rest of the squad.
"I had a conversation with the coaching staff at the start of camp here," Byram said. "We had a good talk about how they wanted me to play and how they wanted me to be on the ice.
"I think the biggest thing for me was offense. When you haven't played in a while, I think offense is one of the first things that comes back. I've been trying to focus on my defensive game as much as possible and try and give up less opportunities."
As Byram prepares for his final tournament as a junior player for Canada, he has proven what he's made of when he plays the best talent in his age group. He's won silver at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky and, of course, top honors a year ago with the U-20 team. The grind to make Canada at this year's tournament is unlike any other – no other team is hosting training camp like Canada with most nation's having had on-ice action for months. It's more of a grind than usual, but Byram hopes it'll be worth it in the end.
"You've got to enjoy it. You got to have fun. It's important to enjoy the process," Byram said. "If you aren't enjoying it, you aren't going to have a good shot at making the team."
Don't worry, Bowen. You don't need to worry about that.