TORONTO – It’s been over 20 years since a Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman enjoyed a debut like Ryan O’Byrne’s.
O’Byrne scored in Toronto’s 4-3 home win over the New York Rangers on Monday night. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, O’Byrne was the first Leafs defenceman to record a goal in his debut since Jamie Macoun did so Jan. 4, 1992 versus Chicago.
“I set the bar high,” O’Byrne said with a chuckle. “Obviously I’m not known for my goal scoring but if I can chip in offensively that’s great.
“But, no, I wouldn’t say expect me to score night in and night out.”
Toronto figured it landed a stay-at-home defenceman when it acquired the 28-year-old Victoria native from Colorado for a 2014 fourth-round pick at last week’s NHL trade deadline. But on Monday night, the six-foot-five, 234-pound O’Byrne jumped into the rush, took a nice cross-ice pass from Nazem Kadri and beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
“We unleashed him tonight,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle joked following Monday’s game. “He’s not known for his offensive prowess, but he was smart enough to get up on the play, recognize the situation and he took advantage of it.”
The goal was just O’Byrne’s fifth in 301 career NHL games since being selected in the third round, 79th overall, by Montreal in the 2003 NHL entry draft.
“I don’t jump into the rush much,” O’Byrne said. “It was just one of those things where I kind of saw a chip out there, there was a whole bunch of open space . . . it opened up and Naz made a beautiful pass to me and I got a nice shot off at Lundqvist and the rest is history.”
Many players dread being traded and having to pull up stakes during the NHL season. But moving to Toronto has been a breath of fresh air for O’Byrne.
The Leafs (22-13-4) are fifth in the Eastern Conference and firmly control their playoff destiny. Heady stuff for a squad that’s not been to the NHL post-season since 2004.
But the playoffs are a pipe dream for Colorado, last in the league with a 12-22-5 record. The frustration of a losing season was clearly evident Monday night when veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere—a former Leaf—ripped his teammates following a 3-1 loss to Calgary, the Avs’ fifth straight.
“Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games,” Giguere told the Denver Post. “It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed to be here right now. It’s not even funny.
“And it’s just embarrassing, the way we, you know, the energy we have in the room and the way we approach practices and the way we approach this game. It’s not how you’re going to win any games in this league. I mean, this is a team (Calgary) that we can beat if we set our minds to it, and every day is the same story.”
O’Byrne feels for Giguere, 35, who won the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL’s playoff MVP before helping Anaheim win the ’07 Stanley Cup.
“He’s just frustrated,” O’Byrne said. “Nobody likes to lose, especially being last in the NHL . . . it wears on you.
“We all know Giguere, he’s a great guy, he’s a winner and wants to win. It just obviously got to him and I don’t blame him one bit.”
And that’s what makes O’Byrne really appreciate suiting up for a playoff-contending team and having something substantial to play for each game.
“Going to rink every day when you’re on a last-place team in the NHL is tough,” he said. “It’s not a nice atmosphere, no one’s happy, everyone’s walking on eggshells.
“To come into a situation where they’ve been winning here and having some success is exciting, it’s great to be here. It’s an easy transition.”
Helping O’Byrne’s transition has been joining a Leafs’ team that plays physical hockey and leads the NHL in hits. That’s right up O’Byrne’s alley as he left Colorado second on the club in hits with 76.
“It’s a style that fits the way I play,” he said. “Randy wants a physical brand of hockey and that’s a big part of my game.
“It’s not just me, everyone is finishing their checks. I’m happy to come here, play my game and contribute physically.”
A more physical approach could help Toronto better contain Rangers forward Rick Nash and boost its chances for an important sweep of the home-and-home series. The six-foot-four, 218-pound Nash used his size and speed to score twice Monday night and the Leafs won’t have the benefit of last change to try and match up against him Wednesday.
But O’Byrne said one approach Toronto can take to try and contain Nash is get up close and personal with the towering forward.
“Sometimes you have a tendency to back off because you don’t want to get beat but that’s what he looks for,” O’Byrne said. “He needs that space so you’ve got to get up on him, get a good gap on him and take that time and space away from him and make him chip the puck.
“Once he gets some speed going he’s pretty tough to contain on the outside. He’s a player we need to watch out for.”
“The whole thing is we’ve got to be closer to him,” Carlyle said. “There shouldn’t be so much space between him and the defending player.
“You try and limit his time and space. You know he’s a big guy, you’ve got to play the body as much as possible and keep your feet moving.”
Monday’s victory was important because it gave Toronto a six-point lead over the seventh-place Rangers. But a win Wednesday night would create more separation and further boost the confidence of a Leafs team that’s won five of six games.
“It was nice to get that win, it’s huge, there’s no denying that,” O’Byrne said. “But this game coming up is even bigger.
“The Rangers are going to be a desperate team, they want that win to. You have to sweep these home and homes, they’re huge, they’re big swing series and we know the importance of that.”
NOTES—Forward Joffrey Lupul didn’t skate Tuesday but Carlyle said he had an off-ice workout and treatment and remains day-to-day. Lupul has missed two games since suffering an upper-body injury Thursday against Philadelphia. Carlyle said Lupul won’t play Wednesday . . . Kadri wore a green practice jersey Tuesday usually reserved for fourth-line forwards but Carlyle told reporters not to read anything into it . . . Carlyle admits he keeps an eye on the NHL standings. “You can’t help but not look at them. They’re printed everywhere, they’re up daily so you have to look at them. I don’t study them.”