After getting Shea Weber back on Thursday, the Habs could see the return of another core player in Paul Byron, potentially as soon as their game on Saturday against the New York Rangers.
Byron had a great start to his season before he got injured, registering seven points in 11 games. On a trio with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia, he was easing the defensive responsibilities of the youngest player in the NHL and using his quick feet to slip into soft spots in the offensive zone or beat the line of defence to get a chance alone with the goalie.
Byron’s speed is his defining characteristic. This season, it is also very much the Habs’. He could help them go back to the winning formula at the beginning of the season, where the forecheck was very effective and the transitions were crisp. It’s not that Montreal is not playing the same game right now — they are. But in the last few weeks, they were missing a key element in Byron, a player that opponents have to respect if they don’t want to be featured on yet another breakaway highlight. On occasion, this respect can sway the game heavily in the Habs’ favour.
Take a look at this sequence from Montreal versus Calgary around a month ago. Byron makes simple but great choices in all three zones successively to help Montreal both defend and then create offence.
He can take a huge part of the credit for Jeff Petry’s scoring chance and the man advantage that results, even if he doesn’t touch the puck — or barely — in the whole sequence. It’s Byron’s speed that killed the opposing attack at its inception, and also what pushed back the defence on the breakout, giving a ton of space to his teammates in the neutral zone and creating the scoring chance.
He might not be a star forward, but Byron has become an instrumental piece of the Montreal Canadiens.
The team wants to push the pace. They want to suffocate the opposition's plays be on top of opponents as soon as they have possession, and use the team’s skating ability to out-rush and have defences pull back against them. So it’s no surprise that Montreal hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success without their fastest player in the lineup.
He may have rockets for feet, but unlike some other forwards who rely on this tool in their NHL career, he is not one to get a running start before his team has clear possession of the puck. He always showcased strong defensive positioning and he is, overall, an intelligent forward with an attention to detail.
Another piece of good news is that Byron should also reprise his role on the penalty kill. His return could then not only help the offence, but also alleviate some of the Habs’ short-handed struggles.