Dave Nonis and co. made a cheap, depth addition to their blueline today by adding Ryan O’Byrne. You would almost think the ghost of Brian Burke was behind this move as Toronto picked up a large, physical player whose impact is reflective of work ethic and toughness rather than innate hockey finesse.
Some of you may remember O’Byrne from his purse-snatching days as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, where he played as a depth defenseman, before stepping into a larger role (>20 mins/g) upon joining Colorado in the 2010-2011 season. O’Byrne’s success that season was a surprise as he legitimately looked like a second pairing defensive defenseman. It became apparent that his effectiveness was maximized by playing with John Michael Liles on his left side. O’Byrne plays a tough, physical game but is noticeably awkward at times while playing the puck. Liles and his noted puck movement skills compensated for this as the two formed a relatively successful second pairing for the Avs that season.
O’Byrne’s impressive work ethic and toughness garnered him a lot of respect that season in Colorado. The night where he finished a shift after getting his cheek slashed open became something of a legend for Avalanche fans. Legend also maintains that O’Byrne is the only human to have ever successfully levelled Zdeno Chara. The organization viewed him as a possible fixture on their blueline going forward due to his size, physicality, and willingness to drop the gloves.
Unfortunately, O’Byrne settled into a lesser role the following season on the third pairing (19 mins/g) with his puck-moving partner out of the picture. This is likely where he will fit in terms of career potential, although there is always room to mature and develop for a 28 year old blueliner. Nevertheless, O’Byrne was noticeable for giving it his all ever night, while leading the team’s defensemen in hits (180) and blocked shots (141). Leading his blueline in hits is a feat he has accomplished in his last five NHL seasons, although he would be fourth among Toronto blueliners this season. He’s also been a fixture on Colorado’s penalty killing unit.
Thus far this season, Ryan’s game has regressed. Often the target of Avalanche fans’ ire and subject to familiar, creative labels such as “pylon”, there have been moments where O’Byrne has been burned defensively. ROB has been subject to getting trapped in his own end along with partner Jan Hejda, and some of his possession metrics have aptly reflected this the last two seasons, such as a blueline-worst relative Corsi. However, sloppy play and unorganized systems have plagued the Avalanche as a whole this year. Joe Sacco will be on his way out sooner rather than later as this talented Colorado team finds itself near the bottom of league standings. O’Byrne still leads his team in hits and his effort has never been in question, two indications that his recent struggles may be symptomatic of his situation.
With Toronto, O’Byrne will find himself playing less minutes against easier competition, likely with his old running-mate Liles. All things considered, the Leafs snagged a gritty third-pairing defenseman that will add size, snarl, and defensive presence to a young team about to enter the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With Gardiner sitting in favour of Liles, and Kostka now relegated to the pressbox to make space for O’Byrne, it is obvious that management and the coaching staff have a vision for their blueline entering the playoffs. While O’Byrne may not end up as a massive improvement over Kostka, giving up a fourth rounder means that this was a low risk move that at the very least will ensure we have someone to steal Vesa Toskala’s purses if he ever shows his face in Toronto again.