Last season, Paul Byron leveled up.
The 24-year-old (at the time) transformed from an NHL tweener into a bonafide NHL player and, for the first time in his pro career, he spent more time in the NHL than in the American League.
A year later, Byron may be the most tantalizing trade asset Calgary has got.
Byron was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 2007 and acquired by the Flames at the 2011 NHL Draft (along with Chris Butler) in the now largely-panned Robyn Regehr sell-off. To be fair, it was largely panned because the Flames gave up a second round pick to the Sabres to get them to take Ales Kotalik, and outside of Byron, the Flames have hardly anything to show for that monstrosity of a deal.
The good news is that Byron has quietly become a damn fine hockey player.
Byron spent the first five seasons of his pro career split between the NHL and AHL, but last season (season 5) he was recalled around Christmas from the Abbotsford Heat and just never went back. He played with jump. He played with poise. He was one of the few players on the team to play 200-foot hockey with a physical edge and he amassed 21 points in 47 games.
In the off-season, the Flames declined to quality him as a restricted free agent due to his arbitration rights, but they signed him to a one-year, $600,000 deal as an unrestricted free agent instead. Now they’re looking smart, as Byron has emerged as one of the team’s best possession players and, as evidenced last night, somebody who can play just about anywhere in the line-up and spark any line with his play. He’s also become adept at creating breakaway chances, just not finishing them. (He’s got 18 points in 56 games this season, and probably that many breakaways, too.)
But what does the future hold for Byron?
Now 25, Byron’s in a weird place. The Flames boast several young talents in their pipeline on the wings – Johnny Gaudreau, Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma, Sven Baertschi and Emile Poirier to name a few. In a year or two years, where does Byron play? Can an undersized player such as him continue to play such a physical style without it catching up to him? And considering the Flames probably need to open up a spot at center or the wing next season for impressive youngsters like Poirier, Sam Bennett and Bill Arnold, who departs the club to make room?
Now, let me just say I quite enjoy Paul Byron’s play and what he contributes to the Flames. But I’m also an advocate of sell-high asset management. I’m not sure that Byron’s value to another team will ever be higher. He’s on a supremely inexpensive deal and is a pending RFA at season’s end. He could land the Flames a pick, or contribute to them landing a young defenseman (not necessarily on his own, but as part of a package deal). Is Paul Byron going to be a much better hockey player in one or two seasons than he is right now?
I wouldn’t be shocked if Byron is moved, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a new deal, either. He’s become a very valuable commodity in this organization.