Right now, the Montreal Canadiens are a team full of opportunities.
That, of course, is born out of the unfortunate fact the team has sustained so many key injuries to vital players. Given their druthers, the Habs would obviously choose to have their top players in the lineup rather than trying to evaluate which fill-ins might be most ready for NHL duty.
But you play the cards you’re dealt.
Ryan O’Byrne is one player whose value to the roster was determined long before anybody went out with an injury. The pressure on O’Byrne spiked the second Mike Komisarek signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer.
Fans in Toronto are finding out Komisarek’s reputation may exceed his actual contributions, but the big blueliner did provide a physical presence nobody else on the Montreal defense corps could match.
Enter O’Byrne and his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. Coming off a nightmare season in which he infamously shot a puck into his own empty net, O’Byrne had a lot to prove, most notably that he could be a dependable top-six NHL blueliner.
After a good training camp, the 25-year-old made it through a game-and-a-half before straining his knee against Buffalo. Following more than a month on the sidelines, he made a successful return to the ice Friday against Washington.
The Canadiens need O’Byrne to bring what they lost when Komisarek left; a big body that moves relatively well and makes life miserable for every opposing forward who enters the Habs zone.
There doesn’t have to be anything pretty or offensively productive about O’Byrne’s game, provided he avoids mistakes and makes people pay the price on a regular basis.
With defensemen Andrei Markov and Hal Gill out of the lineup, a ton of responsibility has fallen to the top pair of Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik.
So far the two have held up pretty well, but both men have already hit their 35th birthday and can’t be expected to carry the load alone.
It would be huge for the defense crew and the Canadiens as a whole if O’Byrne can step up and prove he’s ready to assume serious responsibility on the back end.
This article also appeared in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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