For the last several years, it’s been difficult to mention the name Paul Byron without also bringing up the dreaded “r-word”: regression. Yet as we prepare to enter the 2018-19 season, the diminutive waiver pickup has clocked consecutive 20-goal seasons, without the benefit of power-play time, on a goal-starved Montreal Canadiens team.
Despite an “off” year of only shooting 17.4%, Byron now has a career shooting percentage of 18.0% over 363 NHL games across three franchises, including a conversion rate of 20.3% over 225 games while donning the CH.
Perhaps it’s time to stop talking about regression.
Since it’s become apparent that Byron is an outlier versus the average NHLer when it comes to translating shots into goals, it should only prompt more investigation into how Byron — as an individual — generates his goals, for the purpose of devising player-specific strategies for maximizing offence.
Byron’s most noticeable asset is his speed, which brings about a temptation to use him in defensive roles as a counter-puncher. However, while his legs are certainly an important factor, his goal log over the last two seasons indicates that the winger scores more often using his brain.
I wrote on this subject last year, and noted that while high shooting percentages are typically associated with exceptional shots, Byron’s goals very rarely come from beating goaltenders cleanly. Instead, the Canadiens winger excels at finding open spaces, jumping on loose pucks from rebounds, scrambles, and caroms to create situations where it would be easier to score than to hit a desperately lunging goalie.
This year was no different. Again Byron proved himself to be an ample opportunist; a goal-poacher with a nose for the net.
It is clear that Byron is at his most effective when he is able to fade into the background, when defenders are more preoccupied with what they perceive to be greater threats on the ice.
How does one go about creating this space for Byron?
The first step is to surround him with teammates with the ability to create. It doesn’t matter if Byron’s linemates are better suited for a run-and-gun style aiming to maximize odd-man rushes or a cycling style intended to grind the opposition into submission, as long as Byron is complemented by players who are good with the puck, good at drawing attention to themselves, and good at moving the puck to places where players aren’t. If he isn’t forced to do the brunt of the puck-carrying and playmaking, Byron will be able to find open spaces and good looks behind defenders.
The second step is to identify the on-ice situations which best suit the player. The statistics show Byron as one of the Canadiens’ very best forwards at generating offence in five-on-five situations when the score is tied, ranking fourth or better among his peers in terms of on-ice shot, scoring chance, and goal generation.
Interestingly, while the goal production is still there, Byron’s ability to generate scoring chances and shooting attempts drops significantly when the Habs either have a lead or trail in the game.
Since Byron’s game is predicated on space, it makes sense that the speedy winger is not well-suited to generating offence when the Canadiens are trailing and opposing defences are able to pack the slot with bodies. Indeed, his on-ice shot-attempt metrics plummet to near worst on the team, indicating a paucity of sustained offensive-zone time.
His scoring-chance-generation metrics also decline, although the winger is still able to drive the generation of a substantial number of high-danger scoring chances. This last metric might explain why his goal generation metrics remain high despite the drop in shot generation, as he is not a player who needs many chances to hit the back of the net. That having been said, it’s somewhat difficult to foresee that high-danger chance value remaining as high as it is if the other three metrics stay as low as they are.
Surprisingly, Byron’s offensive output also declines when the Canadiens are ahead. At first glance, this is puzzling, as a Canadiens lead would push the opposition to commit more offensively, take more chances, and theoretically open up the space behind the defence that he should feast on.
One possibility is that he and his linemates have difficulty challenging opponents when it comes to breaking up sustained offensive-zone pressure. As I wrote last year, we witnessed an example of this the last time the Canadiens were in the playoffs, where the New York Rangers, led by the likes of Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, were simply able to hold and cycle the puck along the perimeter of the offensive zone, outside of the reach of Byron and his linemates — Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher — in that series.
This hypothesis is supported by the fact that while Byron’s on-ice shot attempts and shots against metrics remain excellent, ranking third and second among Canadiens forwards, respectively, his scoring chances against, high-danger chances against, and goals against metrics all crater to 12th among Habs attackers. Sustained opposition perimeter play would not result in a high volume of shooting, but rather eventual defensive breakdowns and grade-A scoring chances.
Ultimately, Paul Byron has demonstrated over the last two seasons that his newfound goal-scoring acumen in Montreal is no fluke. It’s time for the Canadiens to stop viewing him as a jack-of-all-trades utility player and treat him like the offensive talent that he is, which means giving him the linemates and deployment commensurate with the other offensively gifted wingers on the team.
Who knows, with more ice time for Byron during a tied game, the Habs may not have spent almost six minutes more trailing than leading per game last year.
All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick