Jacob Bryson had a split second to decide where to pass the puck.
With Philadelphia Flyers winger Michael Raffl applying pressure near the blue line, Bryson faked a pass to his right to Casey Mittelstadt before sending the puck down the left-wing boards to Steven Fogarty. Mittlestadt then darted from the blue line toward the net, receiving a cross-ice pass from Fogarty and all-but-sealed the end of the Buffalo Sabres' 18-game skid with a shot between the legs of goalie Brian Elliott on Wednesday night in KeyBank Center.
The poise shown by Bryson in his 18 games with the Sabres would not surprise his college coach, Providence’s Nate Leaman. Bryson showed that same resolve when Leaman first recruited the then-unheralded, 5-foot-9 defenseman.
“He makes hard plays look really simple,” Leaman told The Buffalo News during a recent phone interview. “That’s the biggest thing for him. Plays other defensemen would struggle with, whether it’s a quick breakout read or a tight-area play, he made them look really easy. Almost so much that you would overlook a little bit how well he plays because he generally plays a really smart game.”
Bryson is no longer overlooked. The 23-year-old rookie has averaged 19:28 of ice time while totaling one goal with three assists this season. He was on the ice for 22:31 on Wednesday, assisting on two Sabres goals and playing a top-pairing role alongside Rasmus Ristolainen in a 6-1 victory that snapped the franchise’s historic winless streak.
While some scouts once viewed Bryson as nothing more than an undersized prospect, his blend of top-end speed, unteachable instincts, and ability to forecheck above his weight class have led to this ascent from fourth-round draft pick to reliable NHL player.
“I think a big thing is execution,” said Bryson, a left-shot defenseman. “Making sure every pass is on the tape. And I've gotten used to the game more over these five weeks. I've learned a lot from a lot of guys on the ice and especially, I played a lot of games with (Ristolainen). So, we've been playing well together. I've taken in everything. But I think the biggest thing is execution. And I'm just trying to learn how to use my feet and my hockey IQ to play the game to my best ability.”
Bryson did not have a clear path to Buffalo when the season began. The Sabres still had a surplus on defense and supplemented their depth on the left side by signing veteran penalty-kill specialist Matt Irwin as a free agent in October.
Numbers and versatility had Bryson approximately 10th on the depth chart. While Bryson’s play with the puck was ready for the NHL, he still needed to round out his game in the defensive zone. It was fair to wonder if a high-event defenseman such as Bryson would fare well under former coach Ralph Krueger, who was always quick to bench players for lapses away from the puck.
Then the Sabres were hit with a series of injuries after exiting the two-week Covid-19 pause in February, most notably to defensemen Jake McCabe and Will Borgen. Bryson was thrust in to the top six when Irwin and taxi-squad veteran Brandon Davidson were inconsistent in spot duty.
His willingness to leave the blue line to support the Sabres’ forwards was a boon to the worst 5-on-5 offense in the NHL. He has also been unflappable when pressured on the breakout, making life easier for whomever he’s skating alongside. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, Bryson ranks second behind McCabe among Sabres defensemen in generating on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5.
“I coached him three years and I never saw him rattled,” added Leaman, who was with Bryson at Providence from 2016-19. “He’s smart, he can park any type of good play or bad play and just play the next shift one at a time. … He’s got a good swagger, but it’s an earned swagger.”
This wasn’t always the case, though. In fear of making a mistake, Bryson was hesitant to join the play offensively early in his college career. He focused on quick breakout passes instead of using his speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone. Learning how to unleash that skill turned Bryson into one of the top defensemen in NCAA.
"We pushed him to kind of take games over at times because he had that ability," added Leaman.
In three seasons at Providence, Bryson totaled 11 goals with 62 assists in 121 games. He was a key cog in the Friars’ run to the Frozen Four in Buffalo two years ago. He then turned pro and spent last season in Rochester, appearing in 61 games and learning the nuances needed to thrive at that level. Winning puck battles, making tape-to-tape passes and shutting down opponents created confidence entering the long offseason.
Bryson was the Amerks’ best player through five games this season before he was called upon to join the Sabres.
“Day One of camp I was impressed, just his speed, his smarts,” said Fogarty, captain of the Rochester Americans prior to joining the Sabres. “Just an all-around solid player. He was playing a lot of minutes, all situations down in Rochester and was earning his opportunity here. And once that came, he's taking full advantage of it. So, to see what he's doing the minutes he's earned and the production he's had so far doesn't surprise me at all.”
Mitigating risk is one area in which Bryson will need to improve if he’s to continue receiving a heavy workload. Among all Sabres defensemen, Bryson ranks second-to-last in suppressing on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5. However, his willingness to join the play fits well with how interim coach Don Granato wants Buffalo to attack in even-strength situations.
Usage will also be important. Bryson has benefitted from playing with Ristolainen, a veteran 6-foot-5 defenseman who can clear the front of the net. With McCabe out for the season and Rasmus Dahlin trying to rebound from bad performances under Krueger, Bryson has an opportunity to grow in his new role over the season’s final weeks.
“He’s a fierce, intense competitor with a very high personal standard, which pushes players around him,” Granato said of Ristolainen. “His standard is pushed to them and Bryson embraces that. (Bryson's) got a lot of confidence. He’s got a lot of ability and he’s another player that has some dynamic qualities. There are pieces of the game he knows he can excel at and he’s learning the other pieces of the game through a guy that’s one of the best, I would say, to learn from, so it’s a really good combination in that regard.”