Marc Bergevin has his fair share of flaws that people can argue about, especially when it comes to various player acquisitions or contracts. The inverse is also very true as well: he’s made fantastic trades in-season to acquire players like Thomas Vanek and Jeff Petry while surrendering little in return.
One of those acquisitions is the speedy forward Paul Byron, whom Bergevin plucked off waivers from the Calgary Flames during the 2015-16 season. Never meant to be an offensive force, Byron turned in a respectable 18-point season on the Montreal Canadiens’ fourth line as the team plummeted down the standings. Then, after inking a three-year deal worth $1,166,667 per year, the Ottawa native blossomed into a utility forward who now has back-to-back 20-goal seasons.
To put things in perspective, Tom Wilson, who plays on a line with the greatest goal-scorer of the past 20 years, just received a six-year deal worth more than $5 million per season. He hasn’t scored 20 goals or topped 35 points, yet was paid handsomely. In the past two seasons on a much less dominant team, Byron recorded seasons of 43 and 35 points, while making $4 million less, and without the aid of Alex Ovechkin.
Digging further into their numbers, and how players were used over the past two years, both Byron and Wilson started in bottom-six roles before shifting up the lineup. For Wilson, his most common linemates in the past two seasons have been Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, while for Byron he’s played heavily with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec. No disrespect to Gallagher, who is an extremely talented player, or to Plekanec who is still a wily vet at the end of his career, but they aren’t Ovechkin and Backstrom.
If it wasn’t Backstrom who was centring his line, Wilson had the benefit of still having Ovechkin, but also Evgeny Kuznetsov as well, while Byron’s next most common centre is Jonathan Drouin, who has played almost exclusively on the wing in the NHL.
Despite the difference in the quality of team and teammates Byron’s underlying numbers are not only comparable to Wilson’s, but better in many categories.
It’s worth a reminder that one of these players is on a line with an all-time goal-scoring legend, and the other was claimed off waivers and landed in the top-six role due to a variety of injuries in the past two seasons.
Wilson had the easier deployment, far better linemates, yet fared worse in most possession categories than Byron. The biggest area of difference between the two players is in terms of secondary assists, which makes sense when you consider how often Backstrom was setting up Ovechkin’s goals for the Washington Capitals as a primary contributor. Byron more often than not is using his own speed to create time and space for himself after receiving a pass from teammates.
In this most recent season, Wilson did produce more than Byron at five on five, but over the course of two seasons, Byron has 17 more goals, and 10 more total points in the same situations. That includes two 20-goal seasons, a plateau Wilson hasn’t hit at all in his career, all while being suspended or fined zero times.
This, however, should also serve as a solid warning flag for Montreal: despite a solid few years offensively, the Canadiens shouldn’t hand Byron a massive deal worth far too much money. He’s an incredibly useful piece to plug in, but shouldn’t be paid like a top-four defender, or a top goal-scorer, because as it stands right now he isn’t one.
At the end of the day, getting 35 points and 20 goals from someone making just over a million dollars is a fantastic piece of business. He’s a unique player in that he doesn’t shoot a ton, but scores a bunch. If Byron can sustain that performance, the Canadiens have a consistent producer to utilize anywhere from the top line to the fourth.