Canadiens’ Byron confident he’ll bust season-opening slump ‘soon’

Montreal Canadiens winger Paul Byron moves the puck between Washington Capitals centre Lars Eller and defenceman Christian Djoos. (Susan Walsh/AP)

BROSSARD, Que. — You’d think not scoring through nine games would be an all-consuming problem for a player who’s carved out a reputation as an established 20-goal man in the National Hockey League.

But for Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron, a slump to start the 2019-20 season isn’t exactly costing him sleep.

How did the Ottawa native spend his day off on Monday?

“I woke up in the morning with my kids, went out and voted in the morning and got that out of the way, had lunch, and then in the afternoon I started building my ice rink for the winter,” Byron said after Tuesday’s practice.

Did his lack of production creep its way into his thoughts?

“Not once,” he said.

“I’m at a point in my life now where I realize where I need to focus, when I need to think about things and when I need to let them go,” the 30-year-old added. “That’s a big part of my game that’s matured over the years. Stuff like that used to really weigh on me when I was younger and now I’ve learned to kind of let it go. The only thing I can control is what I do on and off the ice, focusing and preparing. Other than that, there’s not much you can do.”

Perhaps it would be more troubling to Byron if the Canadiens weren’t filling the net at the fourth-highest rate in the NHL. They’ve scored at least three goals in eight of their nine games, their power play has managed to score on close to 28 per cent of its opportunities, and they own a winning record.

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Is Byron satisfied with his play thus far? Certainly not.

But he’s not frustrated with it, either.

“Frustrated is the wrong word,” Byron said. “I’m encouraged I can do better. I know I can do better. It’s just one of those things right now where things aren’t going my way. But I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated because I know I’m a better player than what the stats say right now.”

What the stats say is that he’s been every bit as good as he’s expected to be on the other side of the puck. Byron’s only been on the ice for three of the 20 even-strength goals the Canadiens have allowed, and he’s only been on for two of the nine they’ve allowed on the penalty kill despite playing a primary role in that department.

That’s all part of the reason the assistant captain’s confidence hasn’t evaporated with the missed scoring opportunities that have piled up since the season began.

“I’ve been killing plays, forechecking, playing well defensively, being a good penalty killer, just being a player that can jump on any line and give that line some jump,” Byron explained. “I’m forechecking, getting the puck back, playing with pace. If you keep doing those things, breakaways will come, chances will come. They seem to come in bunches, but I’m just making sure I do everything in my game that will translate to good play and help the team win.”

It’s not as if he needs an attitude adjustment to make it happen. And his work ethic is unimpeachable.

“I can’t say I’m giving a lack of effort because that would be a lie,” Byron said. “I think every day I try my best and give it the best I can and there’s just some days where the game is easy and some days where the game is hard.”

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If it’s not troubling him more, it’s because he’s faced and overcome much adversity throughout his hockey career. Byron’s a former sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, a five-foot-nine featherweight who was traded early on to a big, heavy Calgary Flames team that didn’t believe in his ability to impact the game the way he has through most of his time in Montreal.

“When I was 24-25, I finally got called up and had a chance to play centre for the first time in Calgary and I got high-sticked and broke my hand on my second or third shift into the game,” he recalled. “That summer, the team pretty much told me it was better off if I just went to Europe. I had a good offer there. The Flames didn’t really want me, and they had other free-agent college guys they wanted to sign instead of me, and they pretty much said they’d keep a tab on me if I left. They qualified me for that reason, but they felt it would be best for my progression to play in Europe.

“I had a long conversation with my American League coach about it and we decided it would be best to keep plugging away here and earn an opportunity — and I only played 23 games that year in the American League (before joining the Flames for 47). That was probably the hardest part of my life, but I dug out of it and it made me better.”

But it was after one more year in Calgary that the Flames waived Byron on the eve of the 2015-16 season. It’s easy to forget that he started his time in Montreal as a healthy scratch.

But it wasn’t long before he worked his way into Michel Therrien’s lineup, and Byron has since become a Swiss-Army-knife type under Claude Julien — a player who can play on any line and in all situations.

He’s also been a dependable scorer, one who’s managed 68 goals and 129 points in 290 games with the Canadiens. And Byron has done that despite averaging just a little over one shot on net per game.

He’d obviously like to get the frequency up right now, having gone four straight games (and six of nine) without a shot on net. But he feels breaking out of this funk is about more than just that.

“I’ve always been about quality over quantity, but there’s something that’s lacking in my game right now that I’m not getting enough of those quality chances,” Byron concluded. “There’s been a few times where I’ve had little tips and plays like that, and if the puck went in it would have given me more confidence. I had a 2-on-1 in St. Louis on Saturday where instead of forcing a pass to (Tomas Tatar) I could have just carried it and had a clear chance. I did the same thing in Minnesota (on Sunday). Those are just little things I can pick at and improve on.”

The last thing he said was that he’s not worried about it.

“I’ll score again soon,” Byron added.

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