BUFFALO, N.Y. — What the Blackhawks need: An immediate defensive makeover.
What the Blackhawks don’t need, at least relative to other organizational weaknesses: More defensive prospects.
The latter has been the strongest argument against Canadian defenseman Bowen Byram, one of the top candidates for the third overall pick in next month’s NHL Draft. The Hawks have used their last three first-round selections on defensemen Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and Henri Jokiharju, yet lack an A-grade forward prospect in their system right now.
But if Byram can make the leap to the NHL in September, as he claimed Friday, that changes the argument tremendously.
“I’m a confident player, I’m confident in my abilities. Yeah, I think I can play next year,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve got a long way to go in the offseason strength-wise, and I have to make some adjustments to my game to be able to play there.”
There’s not a lot of help coming internally this summer for the Hawks’ maligned back end, which bled scoring chances at unprecedented rates in 2018-19. Jokiharju seems ready to break through as a full-time NHL player. Beaudin and Boqvist aren’t, though, and Ian Mitchell’s decision to return for another year of college crossed him off the list, too.
So adding Byram — in addition to one or two free-agent or trade additions — could be a big boost.
The young Vancouver Giants product, who doesn’t even turn 18 for another two weeks, has developed a reputation as a smooth-skating blueliner with elite results in defensive-zone exits and offensive-zone entries — two aspects of hockey that analytics have recently shown to be far more critical than once thought.
“That’s a strong suit in my game: breaking the puck out, seeing plays and making plays at either blue line,” Byram said. “I seem to be able to make plays under pressure there, so that’s something I’ll continue to work on for sure.”
Unsurprisingly, the Hawks struggled mightily with zone exits last season. As a team, they had the second-highest exit-failure rate in the league, per Corey Sznajder, with Brent Seabrook — second-worst individually among all NHL defenseman — the leading perpetrator.)
Scouting director Mark Kelley and the rest of the Hawks’ staff are blessed with plenty of enticing candidates for the third pick, many of whom would indeed fill that elite forward prospect void, but Byram’s repertoire certainly has them considering yet another D-man selection.
“[Bowen is] an electric defenseman, very high-skilled, great instincts, loves to get up in the play, has a unique ability to create offense 5-on-5, exceptionally good on the power play,” Kelley said last week. “He’s shown this year that he can change the fortunes of a game pretty quick.”