Friday, November 20, 2009

Habs Injured Return:

Avoiding O'Ver-expectations

Gionta may be out, Markov may be in rehab, but the cavalry is coming.

The cavalry in the immediate sense consists of hapless Georges Laraque (who admittedly will be a minor upgrade over even more hapless Greg Stewart) and Ryan O'Byrne.

Ryan O'Byrne had a very nice training camp as you all know, and elevated his game to the point we had all penciled him into our aspirational lineup charts. But more than training camp ever could, his recent lay-off has elevated him to new heights. At first, it was merely an alternate defenceman, but as time went by and Habs fans needed better excuses for losing, O'Byrne became one of the three top 6 defencemen that were supposedly out of the lineup.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of hype for the opposition, but it's when you start believing your own hype that things can go awry. In this case, judging from the chatter, many Habs fans have bought their own hype, along with several extra installments for the future. Ryan O'Byrne may well be a top 6 defenceman by the end of this season, but to affirm him as one (in the leaguewide sense), before he's had chance to avenge his abysmal season of 2008-09, is premature. What's more it leads to over-expectation.

I think on the eve of his re-introductions, it's worth taking a step back and remembering just who Ryan O'Byrne is...

Who's Ryan?

Well prior to his ascension into the role of 7th, sometimes 8th defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens Ryan O'Byrne had a long career as a defenceman. The records (which I can find) stretch back to the time when he played with the Salsa of Victoria, BC (his hometown). As a 17 and 18 year-old, Ryan plied his trade with the comically-named West Coast outfit. Joining the 2000-01 league champions, Ryan helped to bridge their gap to being a bottom feeder again by helping them to a 3rd place finish in his rookie campaign. His personal contribution is hard to uncover, though offensively I would expect it to be something like he offers in the NHL, as he chipped in for 2 goals and 9 assists in 52 games. The next season was much the same story. However, his trade to the champion Nanaimo Clippers towards the end of the season must have raised some attention, as he was drafted by the Habs following his team's playoff exit.

That summer the Canadiens drafted O'Byrne with their 4th pick (in the 3rd round) behind Andrei Kostitsyn, Cory Urqhart and Maxim Lapierre. Following his good news, he packed his bags for Big Red (aka Cornell University) where he played hockey for the next three seasons. Never one to overdo things in the statistical department, O'Byrne did put on weight, play a decent game against the tougher opposition and put up some goals for his team (an insight into his time in Cornell can be obtained from this interview).

The next move for Ryan was to sign on as a professional with the Canadiens organization. I have to say that at that point in time, the news of a Ryan O'Byrne contract was akin to hearing about Andre Benoit last spring – interesting for the hardcore, largely overlooked by those who deal in the reality of the Habs. It is a compliment to Ryan then that he upped his standing so much in one year with the Bulldogs that he was 18 months later donning the bleu, blanc, rouge in Montreal. That year in Hamilton was a good one for him, as he played on a very good team and won a championship.

The rest of the story you know. And so it is that a big player from BC progressed quietly through the ranks to make an NHL roster as a reserve defender. To expect big jumps from a player that has steadfastly kept to small jumps at this point is hopeful, hopeful indeed.

Late bloomer?

I think any sensible read on Ryan O'Byrne's early career in the BCHL (not WHL), and then NCAA comes to the conclusion that there was a late bloom in there somewhere for the big man. A read of his first NHL steps seem to indicate the late bloom is something that is happening all over again.

Again, it would take nothing away from Ryan's achievement here if his blooming ended at this very stage. He has progressed further than any Victoria Salsa player (circa 2002) should have. To hope for another small bloom is one thing – perhaps with the help of Hamrlik it could happen. However, let's be careful not to buy into hype that leaves us disappointed when a second big bloom does not suddenly appear from under the rock of a 5-week layoff.

What to expect?

I can only speak for myself, but what I expect from O'Byrne tonight (in the best case) is a slightly better Jay Leach. As time goes by, should confidence remain, I would expect him to regain that trainig camp form, which makes him our 5th/6th in a draw with Mara.

Setting the right conditions

One note I would like to make is that for any of this positive stuff to happen, the conditions for O'Byrne must be right.

Those who remember how he struggled with Hamrlik last season will certainly see the problem of pairing young O'Byrne with Marc-Andre Bergeron. In that pairing, O'Byrne becomes the tutor, not the tutored and all is asked of him up front.

Hopefully Jacques Martin realising this will pair him with a complementary player like Hamrlik, which may not only benefit O'Byrne, but also the cascade of defenders who follow.

As far as tonight goes, and his baptism by fire, go easy on the big #3. Playing with Bergeron against Ovechkin and Backstrom after 1.5 competitve games in 6 months might not be kind...

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