by Brent Marcotte || AHL On The Beat Archive
The month of April comes with many forms of excitement for those in the Northeast. Warmer weather arrives after a long winter, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees baseball begins, and the playoffs for the winter sports arrive after six months of grueling regular-season play.
In Maine, fans have plenty of reason to be excited as their hometown Portland Pirates appear primed to make a long run in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Leading the charge in Portland is forward Paul Byron, a player who fits perfectly into the mold of recent Buffalo Sabres prospects that made their mark in the American Hockey League.
Following in the footsteps of Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound forward from Ottawa, Ont., has erupted onto the scene in his second season of professional hockey while constantly proving doubters wrong.
“I have been small my whole life, and it is no different at every level,” said Byron. “I have to make adjustments, use my speed and make sure to keep my head up. I don’t believe that I am that small, but I have to use my strength to gain an edge. That aspect is all mental, which is a big part of the game. I believe I can play big and I take that mentality on the ice.”
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the sixth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft — a draft that also produced Portland teammates T.J. Brennan, Drew Schiestel and Corey Tropp — Byron began his quest to achieve his childhood dream of reaching the National Hockey League during the 2009-10 season after a successful junior career with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Under the tutelage of head coach Benoit Groulx and mentorship of current Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux, Byron realized that he could compete at a high level regardless of his size.
“I owe Coach Groulx a lot for the player that he turned me into,” said Byron about his development at Gatineau. “He really helped me a lot in all facets of the game, and playing with Claude (Giroux) was an honor. I saw how he worked every day in practice, and how hard he played in games. It was unbelievable watching our best player also be the hardest worker at the same time.”
After a successful rookie campaign in Portland in which he scored 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points in 57 games, Byron knew he could make an impact at the professional level and spent the whole offseason concentrating on fine-tuning his skills to step up and fill the void left by Gerbe and Ennis, who had earned full-time roles with the Sabres.
“I worked a lot harder during the summer trying to improve my game, especially scoring,” Byron explained. “Part of being a second year player is to try and make improvements to advance and keep my body in shape to stay healthy. Last season I lived with Tyler (Ennis), and I saw how he and Nathan (Gerbe) conducted themselves. I watched how hard they worked and their competition levels. Gerbe’s tenacious attitude has started to pay off in Buffalo, and Tyler’s great talent is being shown. Seeing their work ethic really added to the element of my game.”
Byron has found his niche in his second season of professional hockey. In 60 games, he has topped every offensive statistical category from the 2009-10 season earning 43 points (on 20 goals and 23 assists) for a Pirates team loaded with offensive talent and ranked first in the American Hockey League in scoring at a 3.61 goals-per-game clip.
“Paul made a quick adjustment from his first year in the league and is a very talented kid who works really hard,” said Pirates assistant coach Eric Weinrich. “People look at his size but he makes up for it in many other ways. This year he has been more assertive as an offensive player, has done a great job in killing penalties, and has been solid in the defensive end. He has become a great prospect for the team.”
Heading into the 2010-11 season, Buffalo prospects such as goaltender Jhonas Enroth, forward Mark Mancari and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani appeared to be the first options if the Sabres ever needed a prompt recall. Throughout the season, all three have been rewarded for their superb play with time up in the show. But Byron achieved his childhood dream of making it to the NHL too, on Jan. 23 against the New York Islanders.
Byron didn’t waste any time in proving his doubters wrong by registering an assist against the Islanders in his NHL debut. However, it was the next game for Byron with the Sabres that gave him the most joy, scoring his first NHL goal in front of all of his friends and family against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place.
“There was a lot of adrenaline and excitement during the first game,” Byron said about his first few days as a member of the Sabres. “Going home to Ottawa for the next game was like replaying my first game all over again. It was exciting to get to play in front of friends and family again. Scoring my first goal in front of them was an unbelievable experience that I will remember forever.”
Byron has skated in eight games for the Sabres this season, and looks to continue his development to make himself a permanent fixture on the Buffalo roster for years to come. In the mean time he has his mind set on helping Portland make a strong push in the playoffs.
“Our team here in Portland is very close and we have really jelled over the course of the season,” said Byron about the chemistry in Pirates locker room. “Even with guys getting called up or going down with an injury, we keep finding ways to win. There is a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs, even if we are without some of our top players.”
The Pirates recently locked up a playoff spot for the fourth straight season, and have their sights on a longer postseason push — unlike the past two seasons, when they were eliminated in the first round.
With dynamic playmakers, a constantly improving blue-line corps loaded with young talent and solid goaltending, Portland has its fans excited for possible joy that has not been experienced since the 1993-94 Calder Cup championship.
Perseverance and determination are keys to achieving the goal of hoisting the Calder Cup, and with players such as Byron leading the way it is understandable why southern Maine is excited.