BROSSARD, Que.—It hasn’t been determined how long Paul Byron will be out of action, but whether it’s a matter of days or weeks, the impact of Byron’s absence could be considerable on the Montreal Canadiens.
It was in the second period of Sunday’s 4-3 overtime win for the Canadiens over the visiting Edmonton Oilers that Byron came out of a collision with defenceman Matt Benning clutching his left arm. He dropped his stick and gloves, skated straight to Montreal’s bench, and punched the glass behind coach Claude Julien three times before storming down the tunnel towards the dressing room.
Byron did not return to the game and was later seen wearing a brace/soft cast on his left forearm.
When Julien was asked for an update on Byron’s condition after Monday’s optional skate, he said the injury was in the "forearm area" and that Byron would undergo further testing before day’s end.
The five-foot-nine winger, who appeared in 159 of the Canadiens’ 160 games over the last two seasons, has been anything but fortunate in the injury-department since last April. That’s when he had right-shoulder surgery that was supposed to keep him out six months.
Byron aggressively rehabbed post-surgery and managed to start training camp with the Canadiens on time. He then scored four goals and seven points in 11 October contests before suffering a lower-body injury that kept him out for all of November.
Byron scored five goals and eight points through December, and just as he was finding his rhythm, he got himself in hot water with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
On Jan. 15—in a 5-1 win for the Canadiens over the Florida Panthers— Byron charged defenceman MacKenzie Weegar and hit his head directly into the glass, causing a concussion for Weegar. Byron was suspended three games for the offence.
The Canadiens managed to win two of those games Byron missed, but they’ve gone 7-8-2 without him this season.
If you want a sense for why Montreal has gone 22-10-4 with Byron at their disposal, Julien summed it up quite well on Monday.
"He’s one of those guys that’s got speed," the coach said. "He puts other teams’ Ds on their heels all the time, a little bit like (Connor) McDavid does to everybody else. Paul’s got that unbelievable speed, but he’s also got that grit. He plays like a six-foot-three player; he goes into traffic, he pushes, he pushes back, he grinds it. Those are players that inspire the rest of your team; ‘If he can do it, we need to be able to do the same thing to.’ So he’s a good leader that way.
"He comes every day, practice, games, he puts that game-face on. He doesn’t come here to goof around; he comes here to work. He comes here to do his job, and I think he sets a real good example for a lot of players—especially younger players."
It’s why Byron was named an associate captain to Shea Weber before the season got underway. The former sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, who came to the Canadiens in 2015 via waivers from Calgary, has 10 goals and 19 points in 36 games, and he plays the game with near-unparalleled intensity.
And while diminutive forwards Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar bring similar qualities—and perhaps a bit more offence to the table—they don’t quite offer the same versatility Byron does.
He’s a Swiss Army knife; a multi-purpose player who plays well in all three zones, a player who can fill in on any line, and a player who plays a crucial role on a penalty kill that’s ranked eighth in 2019.
Byron’s somewhat irreplaceable, but one player who could help fill some of the void in his absence is Andrew Shaw.
Shaw hasn’t played since New Year’s Eve, when he suffered a neck injury in a 3-2 win for the Canadiens over the Dallas Stars. Given his long history with concussions, the Canadiens decided to treat the injury as one—ruling with extreme caution regarding his eventual return to play.
Shaw said last Friday, after taking part in his first practice with contact since the injury, that it was roughly 10 days ago that he began to feel 100 per cent like himself again. He had been suffering with headaches, but hasn’t had one since returning to the ice to skate with his teammates last Thursday.
"If it were up to me, I’d have been playing a lot sooner," Shaw said on Monday. "But that’s what we have doctors for—to save us from ourselves."
There’s a chance Shaw, who’s already bested his totals from last year—he has 11 goals and 13 assists in 36 games after scoring 10 and 10 in 51 games a season ago—could be cleared to play Tuesday, when the Anaheim Ducks visit the Bell Centre.
But as he noted on Friday, it’s going to take him some time to get back up to speed.
"You miss a month, it’s hard to come back in the middle of the season," said Shaw. "Everyone’s at full throttle."
The Canadiens must hope Byron won’t be placed in a similar situation after his test results come in.