Paul Byron suspension could’ve been worse but still hurts Canadiens

MacKenzie Weegar would be slow to get up after this high hit by Paul Byron.

MONTREAL— Paul Byron has been suspended three games by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for charging MacKenzie Weegar in the second period of his Montreal Canadiens’ 5-1 win over Weegar’s Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

As far as we’re concerned, the punishment fit the crime. If anything, Byron got off light.

Byron’s clean history—this is the first-ever suspension for the veteran of over 400 NHL games (pre-season, regular season and post-season combined)—likely saved him from a lengthier suspension and thousands of more dollars in salary forfeiture. He’s an intense player but he’s never been known as a malicious one, and that in itself makes it doubtful he was targeting Weegar’s head or that he intended to inflict the damage he did on the play in question.

Those factors were obviously taken into account in this decision.

But Byron barreling in on the forecheck at full speed, jumping off the ice and connecting his shoulder to Weegar’s head was reckless at best. The result—Weegar’s head smashed into the glass and forced him to leave the game and submit to concussion protocol—was devastating. And the fact that the officials only deemed it to be a two-minute charging penalty, when they were well within their rights to assess a five-minute major and a game misconduct, all but guaranteed Byron would be hearing from the DoPS and receiving supplementary discipline on Wednesday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner said after Tuesday’s game that he expected the league to take care of it.

“Byron launches himself excessively upwards, coming off the ice to deliver the hit, and in the process makes significant and forceful head contact,” read the statement in DoPS’ video explanation for its ruling late on Wednesday. “The onus is on Byron not to elevate excessively and launch into the hit. Regardless of Weegar’s movement, there is no reason why the shoulder of Byron should be making direct and forceful contact with Weegar’s head.”

That on its own was worth a couple of games, and Weegar being injured justified the number going to three. Now, Byron and the Canadiens are just going to have to live with the consequences of his actions.

The timing of 29-year-old’s suspension is precarious for the team, which has won three games in a row and is hoping to keep the ball rolling on Friday in Columbus, against a Blue Jackets team that’s won five of its last seven games.

The Canadiens will miss Byron on Saturday, too, against a motivated Philadelphia Flyers team that will be rested and waiting for them in Montreal. And we’re sure they’d love to have him for next Wednesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, which will be their last before the NHL’s All-Star Weekend.

Heck, the Canadiens would miss the man who has 10 goals and 18 points in 34 games this season no matter who they were playing and regardless of the situation they were facing. They certainly had a hard time without him in November, picking up just five wins in 14 games while he nursed a lower-body injury for the entire month.

Over that time, Byron was particularly missed on the penalty kill, which allowed eight goals on 42 attempts and sunk to the bottom tier of the NHL in the category.

It’s an area where the Canadiens will be challenged to replace him now, which hurts the momentum they’ve built in shutting down some of the league’s best power plays and allowing just three goals on 31 attempts in the eight games they’ve played since Jan. 1.

Replacing the Ottawa native at five-on-five will also be challenging for Montreal. Charles Hudon, who’s played just three of the team’s last 23 games might be up for the task offensively. But his lack of versatility could see Canadiens coach Claude Julien turn to Matthew Peca, who’s been scratched for all but six games since Dec. 1.

Perhaps Julien will use both players, but neither can adequately fill the role assistant captain Byron has on the team. It’s hard to imagine one of Kenny Agostino (one goal and zero assists in last 15 games) or Nicolas Deslauriers (two goals and three points in 34 games) moving up from the fourth line and doing the job.

Unfortunate as that is for all parties involved, it could’ve been worse. Byron could have been handed a stiffer penalty by the league, which is ruling with more of an iron fist than it has in recent years when it comes to hits like the one he threw at Weegar.

His unmarked past saved him—and the Canadiens—from that outcome.

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