When Paul Byron was snapped up off the waiver wire in October 2015 by the Montreal Canadiens, the expectations were few and far between. Then as AHL-NHL tweener, the hope was Byron, coming off of a six-goal, 19-point season with the Calgary Flames, could contribute somewhere in the 20-point range while skating fourth-line minutes.
As it turns out, though, Byron has become a late-blooming, goal-scoring sensation, efficient in scoring in a way few players have been in recent years. And on Sunday, with one year remaining on his current deal, the Canadiens inked Byron to a four-year contract extension that comes with the potential for the once waiver-wire acquisition to become a seven-season member of one of the most storied franchise in the NHL. Talk about an unlikely success story.
To be sure, Byron has earned every penny of his current payment — a three-year, $3.5-million pact — and there’s going to be very few who take umbrage with the $3.4 million cap hit Byron will carry across four campaigns once his new contract kicks in ahead of the 2019-20 season. Reason being is that Byron has not only rewarded the Canadiens for handing him the initial three-year contract, one that came with a few raised eyebrows at the time, by putting up 42 goals and 78 points over the past two seasons, he’s fought hard to become a consistent top-six scorer and one heck of a two-way winger that has provided a bit of that do-everything-and-anything spirit that a Canadiens team in clear transition so sorely needs.
On his way to this contract, which gives long-term security to a 2007 sixth-round pick who spent the first six seasons of his pro career bouncing between the minor leagues and big clubs, Byron has proven just about everyone wrong.
Initially, as noted, he was expected to be no more than fourth-line speedster who could chip in offensively. When he did that and more, wowing Canadiens fans with a career-high 22-goal, 43-point campaign in his second season with the organization, he was then tagged by onlookers as a player in line for a significant downturn in his scoring numbers. The math suggested as much, at least. Few players have been able to maintain a shooting percentage above 20 percent, and Byron’s nearly 23 percent rate seemed ripe for regression. He laughed in the face of those predictions, however, with another 20-goal campaign and a two-season shooting percentage of 19.9 percent.
It’s that shooting percentage, and the consistency with which he’s been able to muster that level of effectiveness, that makes Byron one of the NHL’s rarest birds. Since arriving in Montreal, Byron has been arguably the most efficient shooter in the league. Of players to score at least 40 goals over the past two seasons, Byron has the best shooting percentage in the NHL at 19.9 percent. Among players with at least 250 shots over the past three campaigns, Byron remains alone atop the heap. His 20.3 shooting percentage is a whole 2.3 percent better than that of second-place Patrik Laine, who is the only other player who boasts at least an 18 percent shooting success rate.
How is that possible? Well, while the Laines and Alex Ovechkins may score with more power and the Connor McDavids with more flair, Byron’s lunch-pail act is to thank for his uncanny goals-to-shots ratio. He may not have the raw talent of other high-effectiveness shooters, nor does he find his way onto near as many highlight reels, but Byron gets to the hard areas and generates opportunities at a remarkable rate.
Last season, for instance, Byron tied for 32nd in the NHL in individual high-danger attempts at all strengths despite finishing 328th in individual shot attempts. That’s 55 percent of his total attempts from prime scoring areas. And that isn’t a one-season, cherrypicked number. Byron has maintained that same level of chance production since arriving in Montreal. Across three seasons, he has 452 individual attempts at all strengths and 221 of those have been from high-danger locations. That’s 49 percent of his attempts, for those without a calculator handy. By comparison, Ovechkin boasts a rate of 14 percent over the same period. Laine’s high-danger attempt percentage is 12 percent over the past two seasons. Not even McDavid, who has turned breaking ankles into an art form, can match Byron. The back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winner has taken 40 percent of his attempts from high-danger areas.
Can Byron maintain those rates and can he consistently provide 20 goals in a top-six role? Those are two of the million-dollar questions now facing the 29-year-old as prepares for the first of five more contracted campaigns with the Canadiens. But that those questions are being asked at all means that Byron has come a long way from his days on waivers.