MONTREAL - From waiver-wire pickup in 2015 to 22-goal scorer in 2016-17, Paul Byron enjoyed quite the ride this season, proving that little guys really can do big things in the NHL.
When he joined the Canadiens in October 2015, the Ottawa, ON native was penciled in to spend the season on one of the bottom two lines, but quickly made his mark and earned an increasingly prominent role as the year went on. His momentum continued into this season; in December, in a home game against Anaheim, the diminutive winger scored his 11th goal of the year, matching his previous career high not even halfway through the season. By the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Byron had made his way up to the second line alongside Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec.
His increased production may have come as a surprise to some - himself included - but Byron always believed he was capable of contributing offensively among the world's best.
"I was always a pretty good goal scorer, even coming into the American League. My first year I had 15 and I had a couple of injuries where I had some inconsistencies that year," he recalled during an interview in March, a few days after scoring his 20th goal of the season. "The next year I had 27. I've always been able to score. When I got moved out west, I always thought that I had to be a grinder and a fourth-line guy to make it to the NHL."
Video: NYR@MTL, Gm2: Byron finishes Gallagher's feed
Byron knew he would have to make adjustments to his game if he wanted to evolve into a more offensive role. Once he joined the Canadiens as a waiver pick up last fall, he set about making the most of his clean slate in Montreal.
"Over the last few years, I knew that I was capable of scoring goals, but I didn't get the right bounces when I was playing in Calgary. When I got here, I knew that I could bring something good to the team. I kept on working hard and now I'm capitalizing on the good bounces I get," he noted.
Byron certainly seized every opportunity he's had in his quest to reach the 20-goal plateau. Among players who scored 20 or more goals in the NHL this season, Byron did so by taking the fewest number of shots (96) and tied for the fourth-lowest average time on ice per game (15:04). Those numbers make it all the more impressive for the man who finished fourth in team scoring with 43 points, behind snipers Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov, and Alex Galchenyuk.
Byron's meteoric rise from fourth-line grinder to top-tier sharpshooter did not go unnoticed by fans or the media, earning him the distinction of being the team's nominee for the Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. It's a description tailor-made for Byron.
"It was a very good season, with lots of opportunities for me and it all went well. My teammates did some great work and I'm happy I got to have this experience and success," recounted Byron, who led the Canadiens with a plus-21 differential during the season.
Despite the impressive stats and accolades, Byron was not one to rest on his laurels, and continued his hard-working and hearty performance into the 2017 Playoffs, when he finally had a chance to make his NHL postseason debut. His first career playoff goal, in Game 2 against the Rangers, put the Canadiens up 2-1 in the first period, helping the Habs to an eventual 4-3 overtime win.
Perhaps more impressive, however, is that the diminutive forward led his teammates in hits - both in that game and in the entire first-round series combined - proving once again that the 28-year-old can play like a giant despite his frame.
"I think I'll be labelled as [small] for as long as I play hockey. When you're 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, everyone looks at you like you shouldn't be there and you don't belong. They don't understand it and I'm ok with that," Byron pronounced after learning of his nomination for the Masterton award. "In my mind, I think I'm 6-foot and 200 pounds. I don't let the scale tell me how big I am or how I should play."
Video: Paul Byron on a career regular season