Paul Byron (Brad Watson/Getty Images)
Paul Byron may not seem like more than a diminutive third-line player, but the 5-foot-7 winger has been a defensive machine for the Flames this season. When it comes to driving possession, there’s few players better in Calgary.
Years from now, when we look back at the 2014-15 Calgary Flames, the names that stick out will be
Jiri Hudler and
Johnny Gaudreau. But
Paul Byron has been just as important to the Flames and their beating immeasurable odds to remain in the playoff hunt. Byron, 25, doesn’t get a lot of press and there’s probably good reason for that. He has six goals and 17 points, which puts him in a tie for 12th on the team in points. He’s not going to wow anyone with displays of pure skill or find himself on the highlight reel often, if ever. That’s not Byron’s game. His game is that of a sound defensive winger, and he’s played the role to near perfection this season for the Flames.
It’s no secret that when it comes to advanced statistics the Flames have been brutal this season. At 5-on-5, the team has the third worst Corsi For percentage, start fewer faceoffs in the offensive zone than all but three teams, and have a shot differential of -162. It’s ugly, but much like last season’s Colorado Avalanche, it’s somehow working for Calgary. The team finds themselves in the wild-card hunt, four points up on the Minnesota Wild and five on the Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars for the second and final spot in the Western Conference. Byron, even for how quiet he has been, has played no small part in that. Of all the Flames forwards, only eight players have started fewer than 27 percent of their 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone. Of those players, Byron is one of only four that starts more than 35 percent of his shifts in the neutral zone and 35 percent in the defensive zone. Of every player on the Flames, he has been on the ice for the seventh most defensive zone faceoffs and the fewest offensive zone draws of any player to skate in 600 minutes of 5-on-5, and he's one of only five forwards to skate that much time at even strength. It’s not just that Byron is starting so much time in his defensive zone, however. It’s how he’s playing while he’s there. Of all players that have skated at least 50 minutes of 5-on-5 play, Byron allows the second fewest shot attempts, 56.7 per 60 minutes, second only to
Mikael Backlund (55.8). One would also expect a player who plays so often in the defensive zone to have a weaker Corsi For percentage, yet Byron has the fourth best mark on the team, tied with Hudler, but behind Backlund, Giordano and Brodie. His relative Corsi For numbers are more impressive when you consider that, relative to the team as a whole, he’s a positive possession player by 3.4 percent. That’s fourth on the Flames, behind just Giordano, Brodie and Backlund. These figures might lead one to assume that Byron is then playing alongside one of the big possession drivers. His most common linemates this season aren’t any of Calgary’s stars, though; the most time he has played alongside any one forward at 5-on-5 is 132, and that's with
Curtis Glencross. Byron has skated just 77 minutes at 5-on-5 with Backlund, Calgary’s best possession driving forward. The chart below shows every linemate Byron has skated at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 with, and how they’ve performed together and without each other.
In all but six instances, Byron outperforms the teammate when he is apart from them. In the graph below, you can see that only six teammates, three of which are defenseman, have a lower percentage of 5-on-5 offensive zone starts than Byron. Together, the charts work as a good visualization of just how good Byron has been at driving play out of Calgary’s zone compared to his teammates.
Byron is also one of three Flames forwards to play at least 50 minutes shorthanded. His shot suppression – judged by Corsi Against per 60 minutes shorthanded – is the best of those forwards at 80.79 CA/60. It’s also third best on the team behind defensemen
Dennis Wideman (77.49) and
Kris Russell (79.82). The only knock against Byron’s defensive play could be that he’s not playing the toughest competition. While that’s true, there’s something to be said for just how often he’s faced with tough zone starts and still excelling. Having an effective third liner – which is what Byron is – is an incredible help to the Flames. And while his offensive totals may not seem like much, they come during a season in which Byron is on pace to set new career highs in goals and assists. If the Calgary Flames somehow shock the hockey world and sneak into the playoffs, Byron likely won’t get acknowledged. He won’t be remembered for his 26 points or his defensive play. But Flames fans should know just how good he has been for them this season, because without Byron, things could have ended up much different.