When you’re talking about a 5-foot-8, 160-pounder (a measurement that
falls somewhere between his what’s listed on the Flames website and what
he suggests he is), the word big doesn’t come up very often.
For Flames forward Paul Byron, it’s come up a lot lately.
His fiancée Sarah, for example, recently gave birth to the couple’s
second child — who weighed in at nine pounds and seven ounces.
He finished the season with the Flames after starting it with the
Abbotsford Heat in the AHL, netting seven goals and 21 points in 47
games. Pro-rated over an 82-game schedule, and those numbers are a
respectable 12 goals and 37 points.
That’s big for a guy who played third and fourth-line minutes.
Now, a big decision looms.
For the Flames. For the player.
A restricted free agent this summer, Byron has to be tendered at minimum
a two-way qualifying offer that pays an NHL salary of $707,850 to be
retained. But he doesn’t have to sign it if he’s set on finally getting a
one-way deal that he’s arguably earned.
Taking advantage of his opportunity with a rebuilding franchise, the
24-year-old pushed his way into a regular role by March, scoring five
times in his last 17 games and six assists in his last 19.
To sum up just how far along Byron has come since joining the Flames in
2011 as part of the Buffalo Sabres offer for Robyn Regehr: he’s finally
earned himself a regular NHL role, but there’s a possibility it will
have to be with another team.
Sizing up the available spots…
What happens next hinges on Brian Burke’s vision for the Flames’ future.
We know it’s going to involve more size up front, we just don’t know
In Byron’s favour is the fact only six forwards on one-way deals have
contracts for next season, and one of them is the hulking Brian
McGrattan. You can add in star rookie Sean Monahan as a sure thing, and
likely Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne, too.
Things get dicey from there. Three more spots. An offer on the table for
Michael Cammalleri. A big bodied UFA in Kevin Westgarth. Other
prospects in the pipeline, including Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau.
Byron, as big as the strides he’s made have been, is no sure thing to return. At least not as a full-time Flame.
But he sure made the best of his situation while here. He knows he
belongs in the NHL and has the strength and smarts to be more than just a
small player with speed.
And thanks in part to the Flames, the confidence to go with it. That’s what a breakout season will do for a guy.
“It was great. If you would have told me that (I’d be a regular in the
lineup) at the beginning of summer, I might not have believed you,”
Byron said before heading back to Ottawa for the offseason. “I knew I
was going to start the year in Abbotsford and I knew I’d have to work my
way up. I did that. I seized every opportunity I got. I set a goal for
myself in the summer and I reached that goal.”
Byron knows that there are more steps to take, more improvement to be
made in the weight room. He also realizes the steps he’s taken, the
maturing he’s done, on and off the ice.
Now a father of two, he’s no longer the kid who came to the Flames
looking like his untucked jersey was two sizes to big (it was) and
thinking that making the team was an inevitability after a strong second
season with the Portland Pirates in the AHL.
His time in Abbotsford wasn’t easy. He’d hoped to be a member of the
Flames after the trade, sooner rather than later. But he adapted to the
teachings of coach Troy Ward and over the course of the next couple of
years, became a man, and a father.
“They have a great coaching staff down there,” said Byron. “Sometimes
guys need different development — sometimes it’s on the ice, sometimes
it’s off the ice. I think they did a great job with me. I think my game
really matured and I took a huge step this year.”
Thinking like an NHLer now
Increasing his physical strength helped with the transition. It’s
something the diminutive Gaudreau will also find as he makes the jump to
the pro ranks.
“I had a great summer training. I got a lot stronger,” said Byron. “When
you’re a smaller guy like me and Johnny, you’ve always been the small
guy so you don’t have to change your game. You just have to learn to
cope with the stronger guys in the league.
“I had a great start down in Abbotsford, I got to show my offence, got
my confidence going. It just seemed to continue when I came up this
Five goals and 18 points in 23 games with the Heat this season, Byron had become a leader.
But a leader in the AHL is one thing. Finding his place in the NHL is
another. His development had to reach a new level with the Flames to
reach the point he’s at now.
By the time he took to the ice for a shift at the end of the season, he
was no longer thinking about what he had to do to stay in the NHL, he
was just playing.
“That was a big mindset change for me this year,” he said. “I felt like
this is the most consistent year I’ve had in a long time. It gave me a
lot of confidence to keep going. Finding consistency is the hardest part
of the job.
Even for most of the year, in the back of your mind you’re
always kind of wondering, ‘If this guy comes back am I going to be sent
down? What do I have to do to stay?’ You go home to the hotel at the end
of every day and you’re just counting down the days wondering what’s
going to happen …
“When the coaching staff and management tells you you’re going to stay
for good, it’s a big relief. It takes a lot of pressure off.”
For now, anyway. But as we get closer to the summer, the pressure of
getting a new contract will surely weight on him a little. He sounded
genuine suggesting he wants to be back with the Flames rather than move
“Absolutely. I want to be part of this team. I want to be back,” he said. “I love the coaching staff. I love the city.
“Hopefully there’s a spot for me here.”