The definition of "tipping point" is the culmination of a build-up of small changes that effects a big change. In climatology, it means the point at which environmental damage cannot be reversed. In epidemiology, it's when the number of people with a disease begins to rapidly increase within a population. For Ryan O'Byrne, it's the 2010-11 NHL season. This is the year when O'Byrne either proves he's a valuable part of the Canadiens roster, he becomes trade bait, or he's simply let walk at the end of the year.
His career actually started out really well. After leaving Cornell a year early to go pro, he got the call from Montreal just before Christmas in 2007. In his first NHL game against the hated Bruins, he scored his first two big-league points, both assists. He played a great game. His size and mobility had Habs fans and management drooling at the possibilities he brought to the lineup. In 32 more games that year, he added a goal and four additional assists to his total. He didn't really play as strong a complete game again, but the promise was there. People were willing to forgive a lot because of his physical stature and because he was considered a little behind his peers developmentally, having spent three seasons in the college ranks.
Then, things started to go wrong for him. Three weeks after that great game in Boston, he broke his thumb in a fight in Florida. He missed 16 games. When he came back to the lineup, again in Florida, he was arrested for the infamous purse-snatching incident, which turned out to be an effort to protect a teammate from having damaging photos made public. Bob Gainey let him off the hook for that one.
Gainey signed him to a 3-year contract that summer, but he was never able to keep his spot in the lineup. He spent 18 games of the 2008-09 season in Hamilton, and played only 37 in Montreal, including the unfortunate Islanders game in which he scored the own-goal winner. It was a month after that, on New Year's Eve, that he was demoted. He never really got his confidence back.
O'Byrne came into camp last year, stronger, confident and determined to finally win a real job with the Canadiens. When Andrei Markov got hurt in the first game of the year, the team had a lot of defensive minutes to fill, and O'Byrne was playing well. Then, less than a week later, O'Byrne went down to a knee injury and missed 19 games himself. He came back, but six weeks later missed another seven games while spending time with his terminally-ill mother. By the time he returned, in late January, the Canadiens were already fighting for their playoff lives and O'Byrne's place had been taken by Marc Andre Bergeron. Jacques Martin decided Bergeron's shot on the PP gave the Habs a better chance of winning than a rusty, distracted O'Byrne did when everyone was healthy. If O'Byrne was playing and made a glaring giveaway or found himself out of position on an opposition scoring chance, Martin gave few second chances. The defenceman began to worry mistakes would mean his butt would quickly collect splinters.
The thing is, when O'Byrne got ice time with Markov, he was steady-to-good on most nights. He was never really a top-four guy without his all-star partner, but he was certainly good enough to play NHL top-six minutes. He'll never blind a goalie with his slapper, but he has a decent wrist shot. And he has promise to get better. What it comes down to, is the guy has been extraordinarily unlucky. The long college stint with few games played, the arrest, the legendary own goal, the injuries, the family problems and losing the coach's confidence have all combined to nearly destroy his own.
A lot of critics look at O'Byrne and say, well he's 26 and he's played 125 games in the NHL; there should be no excuse now for rookie mistakes and inconsistency. It might be argued, however, that O'Byrne's 125 games have been played under unusually difficult circumstances.
This year he's come into camp again, one season left on that Gainey three-year deal to prove he belongs in Montreal. He's saying the right things. He's been working out hard and is physically healthy. He's taken boxing lessons to improve his fitness and balance, and provide a set of fists in defence of his smaller teammates. He's even consulted with a sports psychologist to work on his confidence, which has been battered and beaten in the last three seasons. His body language says something else, though. Watching him speak, he looks as though he knows he's on the clock. There's a bleakness under the determination in his face and posture.
It won't be easy for him. When all the Canadiens' defencemen are healthy this year, including rookie P.K. Subban, who'll be playing top-six minutes, O'Byrne's likely to be the seventh guy. He's got a shot to make an impression early, with Markov out to start the year, and Roman Hamrlik possibly missing some time as well. If he can hit without taking himself out of the play, make calm, accurate passes out of his own end and contribute to the offence a little bit, he'll have a chance. He's able to do it, but this season, without the distractions he's faced in other years, he's got to do it consistently. If he's consistent, he can push a veteran to claim a place of his own.
O'Byrne offers something the Habs don't really have in their system, in the combination of his size, his skating ability and his decent vision. Jarred Tinordi will be that guy in about three years, but now the role is O'Byrne's to fill. Hamrlik, Gill and Spacek are all ten years older and won't be around in two years. If O'Byrne can establish a claim to a full-time job in Montreal, he could be around a while. If, on the other hand, he has another unlucky, inconsistent season, he'll probably be gone next season.
He's at the tipping point.