MONTREAL – It’s tough to contain a player you can’t catch. Paul Byron is proving to be that elusive performer teams are struggling to slow down.
On Thursday night, the 26-year-old Ottawa native was up to his old tricks again, using his trademark speed to give Washington Capitals defenders fits in a 3-2 loss at the Bell Centre, while showcasing playmaking skills few people likely believed he possessed when the Canadiens claimed him off waivers from the Calgary Flames on October 6.
Fifteen games into Byron's career with Montreal, people have taken notice of the intangibles he brings to the table. And, his accolades are even more impressive when you consider that he watched the first 10 outings of the year from the press box before finally getting a chance to sport the CH for real.
“I keep saying it, but I think that’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” offered Byron, who picked up the primary assist on Brian Flynn’s short-handed tally on Thursday night that tied the score at two, sending Flynn in all alone on Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with a perfectly-timed pass early in the third period. “It was about getting that practice time and watching from up top. I just have to have that confidence in myself. I know I can be an impact player out there and those are the plays I can make.”
A goal-scorer while plying his trade in the QMJHL ranks with the Gatineau Olympiques between 2006 and 2009, Byron hasn’t managed to find the back of net with regularity since making his NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres five years ago. Over the last two seasons, though, the points have started to come, particularly in the form of assists. Byron amassed a career-high 14 helpers with Calgary in 2013-14 in his first season as an NHL regular, before chipping in with 13 more last season.
“Growing up, my dad always said a nice assist is just as good as a goal. I’ve taken a lot of pride in my passing ability. I’ve always been a pretty good playmaker. I take a lot of pride in making good passes,” shared Byron, who has three goals and five points so far this year, including two short-handed markers. “It’s definitely satisfying when you make a play and a guy can go down and bury a good pass. It was a huge goal for us early in that period.”
Making opponents miss, however, and turning them inside out from time to time, is something that also makes Byron smile. Small in stature, his quickness is something that catches your eye almost instantaneously, especially when he’s picking up speed through the neutral zone with the puck, or racing for a loose puck down the ice trying to win a foot race. To say Byron is fast would be an understatement.
“People love to look at the stat sheet. They love to bring up the fact that I’m 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds. Those are kind of the factors that people look at, but I use that size, that speed and that quickness to my advantage,” explained Byron, who logged a season-high 17:55 of ice time on Thursday night, while skating on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Tomas Fleischmann. “Guys can’t hit me. Guys can’t catch me. I’m an elusive player, so it’s definitely my biggest skill set and it leads to so much opportunity for me.”
In Byron’s case, that’s meant progressively earning a prominent role on the Canadiens’ penalty kill. In fact, he’s now the team’s most-utilized forward in short-handed situations, averaging just over two minutes of ice time per game while the Canadiens have been down a man. Only defensemen Jeff Petry, Alexei Emelin and P.K. Subban are ahead of him in that particular category. That, among other things, has really boosted Byron’s confidence in recent weeks.
“There’s definitely a certain comfort level you get. When you come to a new team, there’s a little bit of nervousness. I think it was just a matter of time for me before I started feeling that confidence with the puck again,” mentioned Byron, who is clearly feeling good about himself these days – and with good reason. “There’s the skating, and catching up with the speed of the game again, too. I mean, everyone here had a full training camp and I missed out on that opportunity. I think it took a little bit longer than I would have liked, but I can’t speak enough about how big that confidence is once you have it. It’s a great tool for you.”
Byron’s poise – with and without the puck – was on full display on Thursday night. Fitting in seamlessly in his new hockey home, the Canadiens’ No. 41 is eager to continue turning heads while establishing himself as an everyday player his coaches and teammates can rely on.
“Every year, you’ve got people telling you that you’re not an NHL player. You’re this, you’re that. But, you just can’t listen to the negativity. Believe in yourself. Believe in the coaches and the team for wanting to bring you here and give you this opportunity. It’s huge for me and I want to keep on going and get better every day,” concluded Byron, who has 20 goals and 53 points in 153 career NHL games. “I couldn’t be happier being in this city playing for this team. I’m just trying to seize the opportunity.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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