The NHL trade deadline is just over two weeks away and the Vancouver Canucks are still likely to be sellers, even as they creep up the NHL standings.
That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to make a blockbuster deal. The Canucks’ most enticing trade targets — forwards like J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland — are all under team control for at least one more season. That gives the Canucks the advantage of being able to walk away from any trade offer that doesn’t measure up.
That means it will take a significant offer for the Canucks to make a move. More than that, it would need to be an offer that fits a major need for the Canucks.
One of the biggest needs is for more young, puck-moving defencemen. Quinn Hughes is the only Canucks regular on defence who is under 26, with most of their defence corps landing on the wrong side of 30. The Canucks badly need defencemen who can come up with Hughes and form the core of the defence for years to come.
That’s why the latest rumour is so intriguing. According to Thomas Drance and Rick Dhaliwal at The Athletic, the name that has come up recently in relation to J.T. Miller and the Canucks is Colorado Avalanche defenceman Bowen Byram.
Byram is a big name and a quality player
Byram ticks almost every box for the Canucks. The fourth-overall pick in the 2019 draft is just 20 years old but has already averaged near 20 minutes per game in the NHL, with 11 points in 18 games. He’s an elite skater and puck handler, with superb hockey sense, but his passing is his best offensive attribute.
More than that, Byram is a consummate defensive player, using his skating, hockey sense, and size to close down gaps, take away passing lanes, and force opponents to the outside.
As an added bonus, Byram is a local kid. He was born in Cranbrook, BC, and played his major junior hockey for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL.
The only box Byram doesn’t tick is that he’s left-handed. The Canucks could really use a young, top-pairing caliber, right-handed defenceman to play alongside Hughes for the next decade but having Hughes and Byram form a one-two punch on the left side would also be pretty nice.
There’s just one major issue and it’s also the only reason why the Avalanche might even consider trading Byram: he has suffered multiple concussions over the past two seasons. He hasn’t played a single game since January 10 and has only recently returned to the ice.
"I felt like I was a corpse."
Byram suffered his first concussion in February, 2021. He’s not even sure when the concussion occurred — he just woke up with symptoms one morning and was diagnosed with a concussion by the team.
When Byram returned a couple weeks later, he took a hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, who left his feet to make contact with Byram’s head.
Byram went back into concussion protocol and suffered from bouts of vertigo and extreme dizziness. To make matters worse, as he was preparing to return to action, he contracted COVID-19. This time, when he attempted to return after quarantine, everything felt wrong.
“After I skated, I felt like I was a corpse,” said Byram to The Athletic’s Peter Baugh. “I was dizzy, couldn’t see. It was crazy. It was like somebody was pounding on my head. It was tough, and everything snowballed on top of it.”
Byram continued to deal with vertigo and other post-concussion symptoms. At one point in the summer, he seemed legitimately concerned about his career, recalling telling his mother, “What am I going to do now? I can’t play hockey anymore.”
But Byram was able to return for the start of the 2021-22 season and was thriving until he suffered a third concussion, this time because of an elbow by Canucks captain Bo Horvat.
That was in November. While Byram returned for two games a few weeks later, then five games in January, he took a leave of absence from the Avalanche and has yet to return.
“I can’t do it. I can’t play and feel like this,” Byram reportedly told his parents before taking the personal leave according to Colorado Hockey Now.
“I think he feels, like we all do, that he has to really get to the bottom of this,” said Byram’s father, Shawn Byram. “We’re trying to research this and do our due diligence, and the Avalanche have been great. We’re happy with how he’s been treated and all that. It’s ultra-frustrating for him and it’s frustrating for us.
“But we’ve just got to keep trying. We have to keep having faith in the health system. We’re hoping it’s something that can be fixed. He’s seen quite a few different people. At the end of the day, we’re hoping it’s a kid playing hockey at the highest level he can.”
Do the benefits outweigh the risks to acquire Byram?
With that kind of concussion history over the last two years, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Byram.
He has the potential to be an elite NHL defenceman, the type that is nearly impossible to acquire outside of the draft. Trading for Byram now, in the midst of that uncertainty, could be a coup for the Canucks, giving them the foundations for an elite defence corps.
The risk, however, is significant. Byram was held to just 19 games in his first season with the Avalanche because of two concussions, then just 18 games so far this season with another concussion. Concussions can have a cumulative effect, making it harder to recover from subsequent concussions.
Canucks fans would be very familiar with the case of Micheal Ferland, who had a significant concussion history before signing a four-year deal with the Canucks. Ferland played just 14 games with the Canucks after suffering another concussion in an early-season fight with Kyle Clifford. Concussion-like symptoms repeatedly returned every time he tried to get back on the ice. At this point, Ferland has unofficially retired from professional hockey.
On the other hand, many players have been able to return from significant concussions and have long, successful careers in the NHL. Sidney Crosby is one of the most well-known examples. He has dealt with at least four concussions in his career and missed over 100 games because of them, particularly in 2011 and 2012. A decade later, he’s still one of the best players in the NHL.
In other words, who knows what Byram’s future might hold? He could take the time to recover with the right specialists and return to the ice for a long, dominant career. Or, he might never be the same player and deal with the risk of one more concussion ending his career in an instant.
The Canucks can only trade J.T. Miller once — or Brock Boeser or Bo Horvat, for that matter. The return has to be worth it.
The truth is, it’s only because of the uncertainty that the Avalanche might even consider moving Byram. The Avalanche are right in the middle of their Stanley Cup window, sitting at the top of the NHL standings with a dominant 40-11-4 record. Now is the time for them to go for it.
The Avalanche could be patient with Byram but that could mean waiting a long time. Would they be willing to move him for more immediate help?
Trading for Byram would be a major risk for the Canucks but it might also be the only time he’s even available. Making Byram the centrepiece of a J.T. Miller trade would be swinging for the fences — it could either be a home run or a strikeout.