If Buffalo Sabres prospect Jacob Bryson had been born a decade or two earlier, the chances of him making pro hockey as an undersized defenseman would’ve been slim.
The Rochester Americans list Bryson at just 5-foot-9, making him one of the American Hockey League’s smallest defensemen.
But the game has changed dramatically. When the clutch-and-grab era ended, teams started valuing skill over size, opening the door for players like Bryson.
“The way the game is evolving, shorter, kind of sub-6-foot defensemen, they’re now more than ever,” Amerks General Manager Randy Sexton said. “He has a lot of the ingredients it takes to play in the NHL. He’s smart, he’s extremely mobile, has speed and lateral mobility, agility.”
Bryson, 22, has developed into a strong prospect as a rookie in Rochester this season, registering 10 assists while playing all 34 games.
“He’s definitely got some top-end speed, kind of got a lot of the tools that come along with that new age defenseman,” said Amerks veteran Zach Redmond, Bryson’s defense partner all season.
Still, the diminutive Bryson, a London, Ont., native, can be overlooked on the Amerks’ stacked blue line, which goes 10 deep.
Redmond scored a team-record 21 goals last season and won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman. Newcomer John Gilmour scored 20 goals for the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2018-19. Will Borgen and Lawrence Pilut are strong prospects who have already played NHL games with Pilut getting recalled Tuesday.
Amerks coach Chris Taylor said Bryson’s hockey sense – “He’s smart, he’s intelligent,” he said – and speed stand out.
“He’s always moving, he’s always on the right side of the puck, he’s always active in the plays, he doesn’t get out of position,” he said.
It wasn’t that long ago Bryson said his size “was a barrier.”
“At a young age … some people told me I was never going to make it because I was too small,” he said. “I think that gave me a little boost to be successful. I wanted to prove those people wrong. I think so far, I’ve done a pretty good job.”
He added: “As I got older, I heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s too small’ and, ‘You’re never going to make it.’ ”
Bryson said he let those words go “in one ear, out the other.” Still, what he experienced created a chip on his shoulder.
He was never drafted in the Ontario Hockey League. Instead, he played three seasons of NCAA hockey at Providence, earning second-team All-American honors as a sophomore in 2017-18.
After getting bypassed in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Sabres grabbed him in the fourth round in 2017, 99th overall.
Bryson turned pro after last season, joining the Amerks on a tryout following the Friars’ run to the Frozen Four in Buffalo. The three-year, entry-level contract he signed with the Sabres in April kicked in this season.
In Rochester, Bryson has looked comfortable, forming perhaps the Amerks’ most consistent tandem beside Redmond.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever played with,” Bryson said of Redmond. “Just to see his accomplishments and how good of a player he is and know I’m able to play with him it’s an honor. But he’s taught me a lot. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”
Redmond, 31, is known for maintaining an even keel, which has rubbed off on Bryson. Sexton said Bryson has kept his confidence all season.
“It’s hard as a rookie, first-year player in the American League,” he said. “Granted, we have a good team. I think Zach Redmond’s been phenomenal for him, (defenseman) Andrew MacWilliam, our older guys have helped him, they talk to him, they mentor him, they encourage him, they support. …
“Young players, oftentimes it’s hard to get your confidence and it’s easy to lose it. So what I’ve been most pleased of, even when he doesn’t have a particularly good game, he bounces back the next game, he plays well. So he’s able to maintain his confidence.”
Bryson has confidence undersized defensemen – he mentioned the Boston Bruins’ Torey Krug and Colorado Avalanche’s Samuel Girard – can play in the NHL.
“If you’re able to play defense just like everyone else is,” Bryson said, “there’s no reason that a small guy can’t play in the NHL.”