We spent the better part of 30 minutes on the phone last week talking about how he’s dealing with the NHL season’s pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his concerns about his parents, and his thoughts on his injury-plagued season. All of that was covered in Part 1 of this series.
In this final instalment, Byron takes us inside his relationships with Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien, and he offers in-depth analysis on the team.
Sportsnet: Who is Marc Bergevin in the players’ eyes? What insight can you share with us about him that people just don’t realize or don’t understand?
Paul Byron: To me, he’s a different GM than any GM I’ve ever had before. Or maybe my relationship is just different with him. I’ve always been a young player on other teams, kind of afraid to go into a GM’s office or to a GM who’s always been more of a corporate guy, if you know what I mean. Whereas Berge was a player, so he understands the game and understands you.
He’s a great person. He’s personable. You can go talk to him. I think he’s incredibly intelligent. The conversations I’ve had with him just about hockey — he just thinks the game differently than other people. And the vibe he gives off just being around the rink… he does feel like he’s part of the team, like he’s part of the guys and of everybody who wants to win (and not like he’s above it). It’s just different than what I’ve ever experienced before.
SN: How do you feel about the team he’s constructed? What’s its potential? If you feel the team fell short of it this season, how will you correct that?
PB: I think we learned a lot this year about playing full games, not having letdowns in games. I think we led the league in one-goal games lost. We had a four-goal lead in a game against the Rangers we blew. I don’t know how many times we had two-goal leads and three-goal leads throughout the year. We’ll learn from that.
The biggest thing about our team is realizing how young we are. And we have (32-year-old) Carey (Price), we have (34-year-old) Shea (Weber), we had (35-year-old) Nate (Thompson) for a long portion of the year and people look at those guys and say, ‘Oh, they’re a veteran team.’
But then you look at the rest of the roster. For a while, I was the oldest forward until Nate came last year. (31-year-old) Dale (Weise) got called up. But you look at the other forwards — Jo (Drouin) is a young guy, we have Phil (Danault), Tuna (Tomas Tatar) is not very old, Gally (Brendan Gallagher) is not old. (20-year-old) Nick (Suzuki) came in and played incredible for us, Jesperi (Kotkaniemi) is a young kid with tremendous talent, and we just drafted Cole Caufield.
You look at the nucleus, the core, the young forward group that we have and there’s so much potential I see in that group. You add Max Domi — it’s a really, really, really good group.
You look at the back end and we all know what Shea is capable of bringing. Carey is the best goaltender in the world and, as it was announced Tuesday by the NHLPA, I think everyone’s in agreement he’s the best goalie in the world. Jeff (Petry) has been playing unbelievable for us. Ben (Chiarot) has been a great addition. Our Ds are big, they’re mobile, and then we have a lot of good young D that are coming up through the system. I know he hasn’t come up and had in impact yet but I think there’s a ton of potential in Josh Brook. I know Cale Fleury showed some great flashes of what he can be as a player. I think everyone’s really excited to see what Alex Romanov can do for our team.
Right now, blending in the young players and the old players and everyone meshing together and putting forth a really good season together as a potential hockey team — I don’t think anyone looks at our makeup and goes, ‘Oh that team is going to win the Stanley Cup right now,’ but everyone in this dressing room believes this team is a playoff team and there’s no doubt in our minds we can beat some of the teams that are in the playoff mix right now.
We show it. But we show it sometimes and then come back the next game and lay an egg.
So our team’s potential is making sure we don’t lay any eggs next year. We gotta make sure we play good for 82 hockey games because we know we can be a playoff team. The consistency part is something that I believe we can work through and it’s something we need to learn, and being young sometimes they’re hard lessons. We learned some of those this year and next year we’re going to be better. I know we’re going to be better.
SN: What kind of coach is Claude?
PB: He is kind of a mix of all the coaches I’ve had. He’s a great person. I think he talks very well. He communicates very well. He’s much more of a motivator through speeches and talking. And, tactically, he wants us all to play a certain way.
We go through a lot of the system stuff early in the year and he wants to make sure that everyone down in Laval is playing the same system so when they get called up it’s a seamless transition. And I think down in the AHL the guys have done an amazing job of that.
Playing for Claude — I enjoy playing for Claude, honestly. He’s a great coach, a great teacher, and he talks to you. If something’s on his mind, he’s not just yelling at you and berating you. I find it’s much more talking one-on-one with you. And I never really had that with coaches before. It was more just getting yelled at and kind of being afraid of the coach. But with Claude, you want to work for him and want to do things for him because you know he’s a good person.
SN: Given the leadership group you guys have, and given Claude as you just described him, how do you explain how the negative trends in the team’s game this year persisted without being fixed?
PB: I think there was a certain level of maturity (missing). It goes with looking yourself in the mirror and saying, ‘How many more times am I going to make the same mistake before I rectify the mistake?’
Are we all waiting for a coach to come in here and bench you and sit you in the stands before you learn your lesson? It’s an incredibly hard job being a coach and trying to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong to do with certain guys.
Back when I was a rookie, if I repeated mistakes, I would have been benched or sent to the minors and I wouldn’t have played again. Here you’re given a chance to rectify your mistakes.
Like I said, I think our team showed lots of flashes of rectifying the mistakes, but then we rebounded with glaring errors all the time. It’s not just one guy or two guys; it’s the whole team. It’s hard to pick on anyone and say they’re the problem. We’re all the problem and we’re all the solution. We’re all NHL players; we all watch the video, we all get the clips, we all see what’s wrong when other guys do it, but then you have to look at yourself and say, ‘If I’m the guy making the mistake, I have to figure out how to stop making the mistake.’
We talked about it. I don’t know how many times we did a PK meeting where we talked about having good sticks, being in lanes, knowing how the dangerous shooters are. And then we’d get into games and you don’t get the puck on the faceoff and you don’t get the puck out — two of the most important things on the penalty kill — and then the puck’s in your net. So how do you fix that? Is that the coach’s fault? The coach can’t go out there and take the faceoff, and he can’t clear the puck for you.
Everyone knows what they have to do and it’s just a matter of everyone doing their job. It’s something we’re working through. We were a young team still, even if we have some older players, and not having that consistency in your game and realizing how important every single shift is something that I think separates our team from the top teams right now. When our team learns to do that, there’s no doubt in my mind our team will be a playoff team.
SN: Having the time off for everyone to think about it right now — will that allow you to come back with lessons learned and minds refreshed?
PB: I think so. Everyone’s at home right now, everyone’s supposed to be in self-quarantine. I know for us, it’ll be three weeks on Friday that we pretty much haven’t left our house.
What do you do with that time? I have kids, I have a family, I’ve got stuff to do.
But there’s a lot of guys on our team who are younger and don’t have much to do, so you can go back to your video archives and start pulling clips from games and start watching games and take this time of opportunity to learn and to get better. I haven’t talked to anyone about it, but I’m sure some guys are doing it. We’re professional athletes and we’re competitive. We want to win and we want to get better and we all have these tools around us to help us get better. I know guys are doing that to get better and that’s what drives us. I know any real advantage we can get, we’ll take.
SN: You talk about believing you’re a playoff team, but what’s one reason this team can win the Stanley Cup soon? Not something external like, ‘Anyone can win if they make it,’ but an internal reason.
PB: I just believe everybody on the team wants to win it. And if we all believe, we’re all going to do our job to enable us to achieve that.
I’ve never been on a team before where I’ve felt that guys cared for each other like we do on this team. I don’t know if I’ve seen 20 or 24 guys that really do care about each other and are so close off the ice. I can’t see why we wouldn’t fight for each other on the ice and all do our job and pull together and try to win together.
No one has the blueprint to win the Stanley Cup until you win the Stanley Cup. But there’s a lot of teams lately that haven’t had that blueprint, but have found that consistency every shift and every night. And I think our team is on track to do that.