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Sniper, Opportunist, or Fluke? The Curious Case of Paul Byron

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Paul Byron had a breakout 2016-17 season — one with a questionable statistical foundation. How did he do it, and more importantly, can he do it again?

Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Coming into the 2016-17 season, Paul Byron was already considered one of Marc Bergevin’s more savvy managerial moves. The general manager claimed a solid fourth-liner, coming off an 11-goal season, with speed to burn and defensively responsible enough to be usable in most situations.

I don’t think there’s a person on this earth who could have predicted what Byron accomplished in 2016-17.

NHL.com

Two numbers stick out when looking at Byron’s season stat line. The first is 22: his career-high number of goals scored. The second is 23, or 22.9 to be precise. That second number is the shooting percentage of the speedy Canadiens winger, and forms the crux of the primary argument that Byron cannot reproduce the first number.

On the surface, that argument makes sense. While he has demonstrated a career track record of above-average shooting percentages, any number in the 20s is a ripe candidate for regression. After all, it’s difficult to conceive of Byron being a better shooter than the likes of Patrik Laine (17.6%), Sidney Crosby (17.3%), and Nikita Kucherov (16.3%).

But, as strange as it sounds, shooting percentage numbers are not automatically indicative of shooting ability. While most players with high shooting percentages are snipers with elite shots, Byron is not one of them.

What is Paul Byron?

Byron doesn’t actually shoot the puck. The Ottawa native only logged 96 shots on goal during the 2016-17 season, and only has 273 shots in 281 career games. By comparison, Brent Burns recorded 320 shots on goal last year alone.

If Byron doesn’t actually shoot the puck, how did he score 22 goals?

Let’s have a look at each of his goals scored in 2016-17.

Despite a perception that he’s a breakaway specialist à la Dale Weise, only four of Byron’s goals came from breakaways.

For the remaining 18, three were one-timers.

Two were from re-directions.

There were ten rebounds, net-front scrambles, or loose puck retrievals.

And finally, a wrap-around; a clean shot on a two-on-one; and an empty-netter.

A “goal-poacher” in hockey?

Of his 18 non-breakaway goals, Byron cleanly beat a set goaltender just twice, and only one of those was from a stereotypical shot (one can even argue that Craig Anderson would really like that one back). Instead, we can clearly see that his modus operandi is preying on broken plays and loose pucks in order to find opportunities where it’s easier to score than miss.

This is in no way a slight against Byron. The ability to find and take advantage of open ice and defensive gaps is rare, even at the NHL level. It also means that his 22.9% shooting percentage is not based on his shooting ability, and therefore not subject to the same principles of regression.

If Byron’s shooting percentage is not a product of his shooting prowess, then what will drive his future success or failure? The uniqueness of Byron’s predicament leaves one struggling to find NHL-level comparables in order to assess the winger’s potential going forward. However, this scenario is not unique in the wide world of sports.

Looking outside the rink

When I look at Paul Byron, I’m reminded of another smallish forward with average technical abilities, average shooting abilities, but an absolutely astonishing nose for goal. An individual who has likely never played a game of hockey.

In 2010, Manchester United signed an unknown 22-year-old from CD Guadalajara named Javier Hernandez. The youngster immediately featured alongside Wayne Rooney in United’s starting XI against Chelsea in the Community Shield. “Chicharito” did not possess astonishing skills, and had a penchant for being caught offside, but scored goals at an unforeseen pace.

He scored with his face and with the back of his head. He pounced on spilled shots, made no mistake when sent clean through, and yes, even occasionally scored on an actual shot that had to get past a defender. He constantly made runs and exploited defensive lapses, never gave up on a play, and always found space. Even though it felt like Hernandez was useless outside the six-yard box, it didn’t matter because the Little Pea would simply score — and score when the Red Devils needed it most.

Hernandez’s career trajectory provides an interesting example of what a player like him can do under both the right and the wrong circumstances. After breaking into United’s starting XI with 20 goals in all competitions, the Mexican striker followed that up with 12- and 18-goal campaigns. His intelligence and anticipation was a perfect fit for Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical ability to translate possession into attack from any angle or location.

However, Hernandez struggled after Ferguson’s retirement, as the wily Scot’s successors had no tactical place for Chicharito’s guile and ingenuity. The Mexican eventually moved away from Old Trafford to Madrid and then Leverkusen. In Germany, Hernandez proved that his scoring touch had never abandoned him, finding the back of the net 39 times in all competitions over two fruitful campaigns.

Taking the lesson to heart

In Byron, the Canadiens have a player who is uniquely skilled, albeit somewhat one-dimensional and vulnerable to the whims of team tactics. It is the job of the coaching staff to identify how best to deploy Byron’s skill set.

During the playoffs, Byron visibly struggled against the New York Rangers, but playing primarily alongside Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, and Shea Weber did him no favours.

Gallagher and Plekanec would both drive the slot, causing the Rangers to overload the danger zone and leave no space for Byron to exploit. The lack of footspeed from the rearguards likewise could not generate sufficient movement to sow chaos in the Rangers’ defensive formation and coverage.

In this clip you see that both Brian Flynn and Plekanec driving the net not only draws three Rangers to the slot, but also forces Byron to adopt a defensive posture as the high forward, limiting his ability to commit to space. By the time he arrives in the crease, the puck is already at the side boards.

To get the most from Byron, the Canadiens should pair him with players who are capable of carrying the puck or passing it east-west. The objective should be to draw defenders from one side of the ice to the other and back again, or lure them into over-committing to a cycle in the corners. If space exists, Byron will find it.

Here, versus the Los Angeles Kings, Alexander Radulov powers out of the corner and gains inside position on Jake Muzzin. Muzzin has to cut off Radulov’s path to the net, which opens up space. Coming around the net, Alex Galchenyuk assumes the high forward position, pulling the Kings forward away from the crease and allowing Byron to walk into the vacated ice.

Alec Martinez is puck-watching, and the Habs’ #41 sneaks himself behind the Kings’ #27. Byron establishes body position for a shot, knowing that the puck will either come to him or Radulov. He drives across the crease and Martinez cannot pivot quickly enough to take away the winger’s stick.

If Byron’s goal-scoring declines during the 2017-18 season, many will point to regression and decry the 2016-17 season as a fluke. Some may even call for the forward to be jettisoned as a one-hit wonder.

The reality may be different. If Byron struggles, will it be because he is not finding the same weaknesses in the defensive scheme, or will it be because the team’s system no longer opens coverage gaps for him to exploit?