Simply put, Bowen Byram is worth a lot.
But the Colorado Avalanche will have to quantify that in order to get the former fourth overall pick under contract and in training camp for the 2023-24 season. Ideally this contract would be the first order of business for the front office in an expected busy summer of transactions ahead to lock in a big piece of the salary cap puzzle. But these high-profile Restricted Free Agents usually linger uncomfortably into as late as September when hold-out anxiety starts to become a pressure point for both parties.
For starters the Avalanche have $637k less cap space to work with next season because Byram earned three well-deserved bonuses in the final year of his Entry Level Contract and that salary cap charge will carry over. A $212.5k bonus each for scoring 10 goals, finishing top four among Avalanche defensemen in time on ice (21:52 per game) and also by surpassing the .49 points per game mark (.59 PPG). Despite still having a thinner games played resume than he would like, the fact that Byram achieved these milestones in a 42 game season worthy of triggering such lucrative bonuses in addition to finishing top five in goals per game, top 20 in even strength time on ice per game and top 35 in points per game among all NHL defensemen shows what type of impact he had and will surely become key negotiation points.
Long Term Possibility
A smart move with any young high-end talent is to buy as many years as possible up front and reap the discount benefits down the line. Keeping both Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar off bridge deals has proven to be the right call as their price didn’t go even higher upon renegotiation during this Stanley Cup window. Even locking up Samuel Girard for seven-years out of his ELC at $5 million per year has proved valuable for the Avalanche.
The question is can the Avalanche afford to go long term on Byram with the precarious salary cap position they currently are in with about $13 million left to fill around 11 roster spots. Gabe Landeskog heading to Long Term Injured Reserve and the relief of his $7 million cap hit for at least the upcoming season should open the door to more options and if so, sliding a little extra coin to sign Byram through his prime might be a good idea.
One issue is there aren’t a lot of long term comparables for defensemen coming out of their ELC. The Avalanche have bucked this trend with signing Makar ($9M x 6) and the aforementioned Girard. A few other franchise cornerstones have followed suit such as Miro Heiskanen ($8.45M x 8) and Quinn Hughes ($7.85M x 6). And while the expectation isn’t that Byram will match either of these two contracts it is interesting to note that Hughes signed his long term extension after only two full seasons in the NHL with 129 games played and Heiskanen had a career .5 points per game when he signed, both points to remember for later.
Ivan Provorov is another interesting long term example ($6.75M x 6) who signed after a .39 career PPG but had a 17 goal and 41 point outlier season followed by a seven goal and 26 point season at the time of signing. He played all 82 games in each season, which proved a very stark contrast in production. Provorov has yet to match his career year again and is likely considered overpaid at this point in his career but is an example another young defensemen who signed a long contract extension early.
Take the Bridge
A main focus in the contract discourse has been on Byram’s light games played resume of 91 over his three seasons in the league (plus an additional 27 postseason contests) and how that makes it so difficult to value him. The reality is production is what gets players paid and especially with RFA negotiations there’s a clear act of slotting based on points per game. It is likely the following comparables will be brought up during Byram’s contract negotiation as a career .47 PPG player thus far with an upward trend to .57 in the last two years, topping out at .59 PPG this season.
The recent examples short-term bridge deals are well-laid out and interestingly enough the trend for young established defensemen has been to sign a three-year pact and leave one final RFA year setting up to negotiate into a very lucrative third contract. There are several players who went on to sign massive long term deals coming out of these bridge contracts and a few that will in the near future.
The first of which waiting for the big payday is Buffalo Sabres star Rasmus Dahlin who curiously didn’t sign long term after starting his career at .54 PPG and settled for a three-year contract at $6 million per year, which positions him to set the bar for long term extensions in 2024. Zach Werenski also took a .54 PPG in his first three seasons into a three-year $5 million per year bridge and has since signed a six-year $57.5 million ($9.58 AAV) long term extension with Columbus, just to give an idea what type of long term deals are on the horizon.
Most other comparables fall in the $4 to $5 million range on bridge deals, however. Two other recently signed defensemen who took short term deals are Detroit Red Wings reargauard Philip Hronek (3 x $4.4M) who signed in 2021 with a .47 PPG in 167 games (sporting a cool -66) over his first three years and also New York Islanders blueliner Noah Dobson (3 x $4M) in 2022.
As the most recent of this cohort to receive an extension, Dobson could be a jumping off point for Byram’s negotiations. Dobson signed after putting up 51 points in 80 games, which seems to outpace Byram’s 24 points in 42 games but there are two important caveats. The first is that the third year was Dobson’s clear breakout but he still averaged .45 PPG over the ELC. Also, Dobson gets a lot of his production from the power play with only 58% (29 of 51) of his total points coming at even strength while Byram is pacing at 71% (17 of 24). Dobson also doesn’t see as much even strength time on ice, peaking at 18 minutes per game before dipping down to around 16 this season in which Byram climbed to 19:32 minutes per game at even strength.
Though it goes back to 2019 the most interesting comparable for Byram is Charlie McAvoy. He signed his three-year extension with the Boston Bruins after only two seasons in the NHL as he burned the first year of the ELC after leaving college. McAvoy also had a thinner resume due to injuries including a lengthy concussion absence limiting his total games played to 117 at the time of signing. McAvoy’s .51 PPG and 60 total points compares similarly to Byram but their near identical usage with a high level of even strength production and even strength time on ice per game is a point Byram’s agent will surely bring up. After that bridge deal McAvoy went on to sign an eight-year $76 million ($9.5 AAV) contract.
Mikhail Sergachev is also certainly going to come up as a important comparable to recognize as he is the only Stanley Cup champion within this peer group who plays behind an established number one defenseman in Victor Hedman. Sergachev also put up a .47 PPG during the course of his ELC and earned a three-year $4.8 million per year bridge deal. When that concluded he went on to sign a eight-year $68 million ($8.5 AAV) contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was after Sergachev only achieved career production highs of 10 goals and 40 points in a season plus an additional 10 points in the postseason. Basically if Byram can hit 40 points and at least remain at .48 PPG while on a bridge deal he has this comparable in his back pocket heading into a third contract.
The hope that a more modest bridge deal should be on the table doesn’t track well as Byram has already outproduced those counterparts. For example Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanhiem signed a two-year bridge at $3.25M per year, which is probably the contract Avalanche fans are hoping Byram agrees to. With 45 points in 131 games that’s a .34 PPG rate at the time Sanhiem’s contract was signed in 2019. Then with a career high of only 35 points and nine goals in a season and a career PPG that never climbed above .34 Sanhiem went on to ink an eight-year 50 million dollar contract ($6.25M AAV) at the conclusion of that bridge deal proving that even modest producers get lucrative deals long term.
What Byram has that few of these other highly talented and well-paid defensemen have is his name on the Stanley Cup. And he wasn’t just along for the ride as he was a crucial part in the team’s success especially in the Finals. Over the 20 games played just in counting stats he scored nine points, all but one at even strength, and led all defenseman with a +15 rating, which also tied Gabe Landeskog and Connor McDavid for the best postseason plus/minus. For the Cup clinching series against the Lightning Byram led all players in 5-on-5 time on ice with 20:55 per game and controlled the play with a 59.62% Corsi For and 67.73% expected goals share. A dominant performance.
Byram has always been a highly-touted player with strong pedigree as the third overall pick in the WHL draft, fourth overall pick in the NHL draft, CHL prospect of the year, World Junior Championship gold and silver medalist and now Stanley Cup champion. At 21-years of age he’s just getting started and the ceiling is high. While the low number of games played is an oft-referenced knock on Byram it also serves as an opportunity to lock him into a contract before he truly breaks out especially if he continues on the trajectory of increasing his points per game every season.
There’s no risk in overpaying for a flash in the pan or a player with an uncertain role as his identity, importance and fit with the Avalanche is pretty clear. Paying for what Byram has already accomplished puts him in line with his peers and isn’t as much of a leap of faith as it seems on the surface. The three-year bridge deal is an acceptable trend but keeping the AAV in the low four million range will be a task. The Avalanche like six-year deals on the long term for young players and the high six to seven million is probably the sweet spot. Any big ideas of going for a one-year prove it contract carries the risk of giving Byram arbitration rights and the opportunity to push his career PPG even higher. As with any long term contract there’s risk of injury but betting on an elite 21-year old is the safest bet in hockey.