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Checking Out Ryan O'Byrne

ATLANTA GA - DECEMBER 10:  Alexander Burmistrov #8 of the Atlanta Thrashers is sent to the ice by Ryan O'Byrne #3 of the Colorado Avalanche at Philips Arena on December 10 2010 in Atlanta Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA GA - DECEMBER 10: Alexander Burmistrov #8 of the Atlanta Thrashers is sent to the ice by Ryan O'Byrne #3 of the Colorado Avalanche at Philips Arena on December 10 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Ryan O’Byrne, the 6’5" 234-pound defenseman, has already made a huge impact with the Colorado Avalanche. In his first game, he led the team in TOI (24:51) and hits (6) and tied for lead in shots on goal (3) and blocked shots (4). To say the least, he made an immediate impression. However, many recently-traded players – especially those who had found themselves out of favor with their previous coaches – play over their heads for their new team for a while and then settle back into mediocrity when they get comfortable. Fortunately for the Avs, O’Byrne hasn’t done that. Per game, he is averaging 20:18 minutes, 3 hits, and 2 blocked shots, and he’s a +13. He’s secured himself a spot on the penalty kill and has remained on the top defensive pairing since that first game. Just as others before him, O’Byrne has rejuvenated his career in Colorado, becoming a refreshing and reliable piece of a struggling defensive corps.

Ryan O’Byrne started his amateur career while attending St. Michaels University, a private school in British Columbia. He played in the juniors for two years with the BCHL’s Victoria Salsa and Nanaimo Clippers. The Canadian native chose to forego a career in the CHL in favor of attending Cornell University in the United States. As an 18-year-old, O’Byrne was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the third round (79th overall) due in large part to his size and potential for being a shut-down defenseman.

In his freshman year with Cornell, O’Byrne played in 31 games and had one assist. He improved upon that record in his sophomore year, recording 3 goals and 7 assists. That year, the defenseman helped his team win the ECAC Championship, beating Harvard 3-1; Cornell fell to the University of Minnesota in the West Regional Final. As a junior, O’Byrne really shined. He became a top defender on Cornell’s league leading corps and received First Team All-Ivy honors. In that 2005-2006 season, he missed almost a month due to injury, but still led the team’s defensemen with 7 goals and 13 points in 28 games. He was also named to the ECAC’s Third-Team. Despite being named alternate captain by his coach for his senior year, O’Byrne chose to sign a two-year entry level contract with the Canadiens to begin his professional career.

The new Canadien reported to training camp for the 2006-2007 season, but was unable to break the stacked roster. Thus, O’Byrne was sent to Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. In the 80 regular season games he played with them, he recorded 12 assists with 55 shots on goal while filling the role as a stay-at-home defenseman. He also ended with 129 PIMs and a -7. However, his value really showed in the playoffs, where he had 2g/5a and was a +12 in 22 games. His two goals came at critical times: a series clinching goal over the Rochester Americans to advance to the semi-finals and a game-winner in game three of the championship finals against the Hershey Bears. O’Byrne was an integral part of the Bulldogs winning the Calder Cup that year

During the 2007-2008 season, he played only 20 games with the Bulldogs, spending 33 with the Canadiens and the remainder out with an injury. In Hamilton, he had 2g/6a for 8 points; in Montreal, he had 1g/6a. The rookie averaged just over 13 minutes per game and registered totals of 65 hits, 50 blocked shots, and 10 shots on goal. His first NHL points came in his first game on December 6, 2007 in a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins. After a month off to heal a broken thumb, O’Byrne returned to the NHL and scored his first NHL goal in a 6-4 win against the San Jose Sharks in March 2008. He played in 4 post-season games.

Unfortunately, O’Byrne’s rookie year was overshadowed by an incident oft misunderstood and the subject of various jokes. On February 11, 2008, O’Byrne and rookie teammate Tom Kostopoulos were arrested outside of a Tampa Bay nightclub after a team dinner. They were charged with grand theft and resisting arrest respectively. The commonly told story was that O’Byrne stole a woman’s purse and cell phone, and Kostopoulos became overly aggressive with the police when they confronted O’Byrne. The real story is that the woman had taken compromising photos of a fellow Canadien, and O’Byrne took the purse to delete the pictures from her phone. Although he intended to give both back once the photos were gone, the woman accused him of stealing the purse and phone. Kostopoulos told the police to "back off" and tried to explain the situation. In the end, O’Byrne apologized to the woman and agreed to do community service, and as a result, the charges against both players were dropped.

On July 16, 2008, Montreal signed O’Byrne to a three-year contract; he also made the regular roster for 2008-2009 right from training camp. As the 7th defenseman, he saw some time in the press box and back in Hamilton, where he notched 1g/5a and was a +9 in 18 games. In his 37 games in the NHL, O’Byrne helped out on 5 goals, averaged 15 minutes per game, had 77 hits, blocked 41 shots, and appeared in 2 playoff games. For a second year in a row, however, his season was marred with negativity as he committed another foul he would certainly like to forget. In a November game against the New York Islanders, the Canadiens were up by one with 5 minutes left in the third period. Goalie Carey Price saw that there was a delayed penalty against the Isle, so he started toward the bench. O’Byrne, on the other hand, didn’t notice the penalty or the open net and accidentally sent the puck in for the game-tying goal. The Islanders would go on to win the game in a shoot out. Still, he showed incredible class as journalist Mike Boon of the Montreal Gazette recalls: "After the game, O'Byrne was at his dressing-room stall. He patiently answered all the questions about a brain cramp that would have had more than a few NHLers hiding in the training room."

The 2009-2010 season was vastly different. He became a fan-favorite when he honored a former player. Emile Bouchard’s number was retired on December 4, 2009; currently wearing Bouchard’s #3, O’Byrne took it upon himself to don his new #20 jersey under his #3. During the ceremony, he removed the #3 and presented it to Bouchard. Perhaps the positive feelings he received from the fans that year bolstered his confidence as he bettered his stats from the previous season despite missing 20 games to a knee injury: 119 hits and 111 blocked shots in 55 games. Because of his strong performance, O’Byrne solidified his place with Montreal’s defense. It’s worth noting that he did all this while losing his mother to cancer during the season.

Again things changed, and the 2010-2011 season saw the defenseman a healthy scratch for many nights. The Canadiens’ depth chart on defense increased so that there was little room for O’Byrne. Despite extra effort in practices and maintaining a team-first attitude, he simply could not find a way out of coach Jacques Martin’s doghouse. Less than two months into the season, he got the call many players dread: he’d been traded. But in true O’Byrne fashion, he saw the trade as the perfect opportunity to get back into the game and show that he could be a valuable contributor to his team. "(The Colorado Avalanche) welcomed me with open arms," said O’Byrne. "The times were tough in Montreal. But I’ve got that pleasure back in the game."

He looks back at his time with the Canadiens with fondness, as do his teammates and coaching staff. There’s a unanimous opinion about O’Byrne being one of the most gracious, hard-working and supportive guys in the league, and he will be missed by his former teammates. "It's always sad when you see a guy leaving like that. We had great moments together, we won the Calder Cup and we took our first steps together, so obviously it's tough that way," said Maxin Lapierre. "At the same time he deserves a new start and he's going to have the chance to show he's a good player somewhere else."

Continuing to show the class for which he’s known, O’Byrne has nothing but good things to say about his time with Montreal. "I'm a team player and I've been with Montreal since 2003 and the organization's been great to me and the fans have always supported me," O'Byrne said. "I was waiting for that chance to get back in, but there weren't any injuries and the guys have been playing well. You have to sit and be patient and, the way it worked out, I got traded." He also recognizes that his inability to crack the line up ultimately fell on his shoulders. "I had every opportunity. Guys played well and guys were ahead of me. I'm not one of those guys who sits back and points a finger at whose fault it is. It's my fault."

This kind of self-reflection will go a long way in Colorado. Coach Joe Sacco is known for expecting the most out of his players and holding them accountable when they don’t deliver; the fact that O’Byrne will do the same to himself is in his favor. A player who knows plenty about Sacco’s expectations and what happens when you don’t live up to them is O’Byrne’s defensive partner, John-Michael Liles. The two immediately found chemistry, and clearly each is helping the other to career years. Said Liles of O’Byrne, "He’s been like a security blanket. I know where he is on the ice all of the time. He hits, he blocks shots and plays fantastic for us. He was a great pickup for us."

Only time will tell how Ryan O’Byrne’s story in Colorado will unfold. So far, he’s been a welcomed addition and an important part of the Avalanche’s continued success in spite of massive injury woes. At only 26, the defenseman fits perfectly with the organization’s rebuilding plan, and with his help, there’s no reason not to believe this team will be a serious contender in the coming years.