Sabres' addition of Bowen Byram raises questions about future of defense


Staff member

In the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams communicated to Casey Mittelstadt that the club was willing to negotiate a contract extension before he became a restricted free agent this summer.

There was one caveat, though: The Sabres wanted to wait until after the deadline passed Friday at 3 p.m.
Neither side reached the negotiating table.

In a stunning pre-deadline move Wednesday that holds long-term implications for Buffalo, the Sabres dealt Mittelstadt to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Bowen Byram.

Mittelstadt developed into an outstanding top-six center the past two seasons and led the Sabres with 47 points in 62 games in 2023-24. Among all NHL players, Mittelstadt’s 71 even-strength points since the start of 2023 ranked 21st. He communicated to Adams and others recently that he wished to sign with Buffalo long-term.

Finally, the 2017 first-round draft pick was going to be rewarded for his transformation from raw prospect into exceptional forward, particularly at 5-on-5. Mittelstadt, 25, has 29 goals over the past two seasons, including 14 this season. He was averaging a career-high 18:16 ice time per game, and his versatility will be an important addition to the Avalanche as they try to win a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

“There’s not an urgency,” Adams said Saturday of Mittelstadt’s contract. “He’s an (restricted free agent). He understands the situation, I understand the situation, but I think the critical part of the communication is that he understands how we feel and we understand that he wants to be here. I also talked to Casey directly, too. I don’t know, maybe that’s unconventional, but I got traded four or five times, so I maybe have a soft spot for it.

“But I just want to make sure guys understand that is part of the business and I have to have these conversations. I’m doing my job. I wanted him to understand to focus on hockey, block out the noise and I think he’s done a good job with that.”

The Sabres wanted to take advantage of his trade value to upgrade their blue line and, while they believed in Mittelstadt, there wasn’t an appetite to meet his expected long-term salary given what the club has at center.

Tage Thompson and Dylan Cozens are signed long-term to contracts worth a combined $99.7 million; Peyton Krebs is ready for a bigger role; and Noah Ostlund is among the talented centers in the prospect pipeline.

Ostlund is expected to join the Rochester Americans after his season in the Swedish Hockey League and fellow 2022 first-round draft picks Jiri Kulich and Matt Savoie have shown an ability to play center.

Kulich has 17 goals and 29 points in 38 games during his second season with the Amerks, and Savoie leads the Western Hockey League with two points per game this season. Savoie, 20, has 25 goals and 56 points in 28 games between the Moose Jaw Warriors and Wenatchee Wild.

While the Sabres’ experienced players have aspirations to win next season, Adams expressed confidence they can do so with another young forward on the roster because the coaching staff can insulate them with Thompson, Cozens, Alex Tuch, Jeff Skinner and JJ Peterka, among others. It’s a risky approach given their lack of top-six scoring this season.

Adams did not sign or acquire a forward last summer once the club learned winger Jack Quinn would miss approximately six months (torn Achilles tendon). Management preferred to give a prospect the roster spot while it tried to lure Patrick Kane to play for his hometown Sabres.

Zach Benson has brought an impressive two-way approach as a left wing at 18 years old and only a few months removed from his selection 13th overall at the NHL draft. But he has six goals in 51 games.

“For me, what I balance, I think about regardless of the age, if you’re 18 like [Zach] Benson or 20 or 21 or 22, that first year in the NHL, there’s a learning curve,” said Adams. “How much better is Benson going to be next year for what he’s going through now? And that doesn’t necessarily even mean production, it means experience and understanding.

“You weigh all those things, but at the end of the day, I do feel there’s a little bit of a difference now. Our core is not young. I know we’re the youngest team in the NHL based on the actual age, but these guys have played a lot of games. ... We’re in a spot where you say, ‘Do you have the guys where you feel like you can insulate some young guys versus do you go older?’ I think it’s just a balance. It’s about the right fit, the right guy at the right time and do they fit here with what we’re trying to do?”

Acquiring Byram also raises several notable questions about the defense corps.

Byram is another left-handed defenseman, joining Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson on that side of Buffalo’s blue line. Byram, 22, is under contract through next season with a reasonable $3.85 million cap hit. He will have arbitration rights as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2025, which will require the Sabres to commit more money to its defense corps.

If Byram plays well enough to merit a long-term contract, can the Sabres afford to give him one? Dahlin, Power and Samuelsson are signed long-term to contracts worth a combined $176.45 million.

It’s also fair to question where Byram fits. Will he have a role on the power play? Dahlin leads Buffalo’s first unit and Power quarterbacks the other. Byram is a very talented young player and immediately strengthens a corps that needed to add another top-four option this summer. Attracting a free agent would have been challenging in July given the Sabres’ inconsistent play this season.

Byram’s eventual price tag could impact the team’s negotiations with Henri Jokiharju, who is currently on the top pair next to Dahlin and reaches restricted free agency this summer. If the Sabres are able to retain Jokiharju – likely on a short-term, bridge contract – their blue line next season could include him, Byram, Dahlin, Power, Samuelsson, Connor Clifton and Ryan Johnson.

The Sabres have players on their roster who can sell Byram on committing to Buffalo. He captained Canada to silver at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2021 while teammates with Cozens, Krebs, Quinn and goalie Devon Levi.

Byram is already an accomplished defenseman. He won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2022, averaging 19:22 of ice time across 20 playoff games while paired with current Sabre Erik Johnson.

In four NHL seasons, Byram has 23 goals and 63 points while averaging 19:55 of ice time in 146 games. He has eight goals and 20 points this season, averaging 19:51 of ice time, which is almost two fewer minutes than he played in 2022-23. Byram didn’t have a consistent role on Colorado’s power play, and the Avalanche didn’t use him on the penalty kill.

Byram made a significant impact this season at 5-on-5 while paired with Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, but Byram’s possession numbers have been lower while playing next to Josh Manson or Jack Johnson. With Makar and Bryam on the ice, the Avalanche had 53.83% expected-goal share, according to Evolving-Hockey.
This is the first move in Adams’ quest to try to improve the margins of the Sabres’ roster, though it takes their leading scorer and a reliable top-six contributor out of the lineup.

“I do think identifying players to play specific roles, especially in the bottom part of our line, is going to be important for us moving forward,” said Adams.