This college hockey season has emerged as the “Year of the Defenseman.” Prompted by sports information directors in the crowded Northeast Corridor, puck scribes are plugging three high-scoring defensemen for the Hobey Baker Award—Adam Fox (Harvard), Cale Makar (UMass) and Chase Priskie (Quinnipiac), who could all conceivably be wedged into the three Hobey Hat Trick finalist slots. This is without even taking a peek west of the Appalachians, where Bobby Nardella (Notre Dame) and K’Andre Miller (Wisconsin) lead their respective teams in scoring.
But for those who watch the sport for a living, there is one very big name missing from that list of shining stars.
“What about the kid at Providence? That Bryson kid!” blurted out Ben Smith, the USA Hockey player personnel director, talking about the Providence College junior captain Jacob Bryson. “They’re going to have a hell of a time making the All-Hockey East selections.”
The wizened Smith, an Olympic gold medal coach and member of two hockey Halls of Fame, is spot on. Although Bryson’s offensive numbers (4-19-23) are solid, and they don’t leap out at you like the 30-point blueliners being hyped for Hobey. It’s the eye test in which Bryson streaks to the head of the pack.
“For my money, he’s the best defenseman in Hockey East not named Cale Makar,” said senior writer Mark Divver of the Providence Journal. “He doesn’t get the hype that some NCAA d-men get, but he is a stud.”
Examining the most recent data supports Divver’s hypothesis. The Friars just completed a home-and-home showdown with Lowell, the hottest team in Hockey East going into the series. The River Hawks had just dispatched No. 2 UMass the week prior to their confrontation with Providence. Led by the two-way play of Bryson, the Friars swept Lowell 6-1, 1-0, a tour de force for Bryson. He dished off three tasty helpers in the opener and played sterling defense in Saturday’s airtight shutout.
Although Bryson is only 5-foot-9, he is a dynamic defender. His biggest asset is not strength or stick skills, though his is not lacking in either. It’s his world-class wheels that separate him from the rest.
“It’s not just his speed, it’s his edgework,” says a USA Hockey national team parent who watches every Friars game. “He’s like Tory Krug, or Matt Grzelcyk.” Those two undersized college hockey products have found a home on the Bruins blue line. And their game is echoed by Bryson.
The signature skill for the London, Ontario, native is his ability to break the puck out of the Friars zone with his legs, so when he makes that quality first pass, it’s on the attacking side of his own blue line, not his goal line. That gives the Friars a huge geographical edge, playing the game downhill from their net. It’s moved them up into contention in Hockey East.
“He’s a great skater who retrieves pucks under duress and gets the breakout started,” says Divver, who knows Bryson’s games intimately from watching him for three straight years.
Although Bryson doesn’t get anywhere near the notoriety of the likes of NHL first-rounder Dante Fabbro of Boston University, it was Bryson, not Fabbro, who made the Hockey East first All-Star team last year. Bryson has spent much of his career in the shadows of all those “can’t-miss” stars in the hockey galaxy. He was ignored in the Major Junior draft as a teen, and chosen 99th overall by Buffalo in 2017. This late-bloomer might prove to be a steal for the Sabres.
A college hockey railbird, who has worked as both a player agent and an NHL scout, offered this sober assessment of Bryson’s chance at The Show.
“He’s a hard-working two-way D-man who has a chance to play NHL games due to his speed and skill,” said the former scout. “The new NHL emphasizes those qualities, providing smaller defensemen opportunity.”
From all indications, the Sabres are thoroughly pleased with Bryson’s development under Nate Leaman’s tutelage at Providence. Bryson has been to Buffalo’s development camps each of the past two summers, growing in mind and body each session.
And the fruits of that labor have ripened for what, in all probability, will be his final stretch run in Hockey East. Behind their little big man wearing the “C,” the Friars have climbed into a tie with Lowell for second place in Hockey East and have UMass in their crosshairs. A Saturday night showdown with the Minutemen looms, in the loud confines of Schneider Arena. It has that little hockey town, in that little state of Rhode Island, in awe of their little defenseman doing big things.
Although no one inside Providence Hockey’s inner circle will look beyond this week’s confrontation with No. 2 UMass, this is a farewell tour for Bryson, who appears destined for a well-deserved life in the NHL. Ben Smith spews what is now becoming conventional wisdom emerging from New England hockey’s inner circles: “Maybe Tory Krug and Matt Grzelcyk are setting the table for Bryson.”
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.