For many NHL Draft enthusiasts, the 2020 NHL Draft has one player on the top that’s been there all season: Alexis Lafrenière. To start the 2019-20 campaign, he was followed very closely by Quinton Byfield. Throughout the season, those two have maintained the top in most rankings. Most.
In some rankings, especially near the end of the season and now that it’s over, Byfield has been overtaken by players like Tim Stützle and Lucas Raymond in some cases. While these are excellent players, with bright futures ahead of them, the questioning of Byfield is interesting.
What the Experts Have to Say About Quinton Byfield
First, let’s take a look at where Byfield stands for some major outlets/draft experts:
- Future Considerations: 2nd
- ISS Hockey: 4th
- McKeen’s: 2nd
- Bob McKenzie: 2nd
- Craig Button: 3rd
- Cam Robinson: 1st
- Larry Fisher: 4th
Right off the bat, you can see that there’s some variance into where Byfield stands. Yes, he’s in the top four for all of these rankings but first to fourth is a huge variance when looking at the NHL Draft and the projected abilities of players in those different rankings.
Out of the sources that ranked them, a few gave reasons for their rankings. The Hockey Writers own Larry Fisher had this to say about Byfield’s ranking:
“He tailed off as the Hlinka tournament ramped up, worked his way down Canada’s depth chart at the World Juniors, then posted a blank stat-line without a single shot in the latest showcase…Byfield has, by and large, been invisible in the biggest games and unable to rise to the occasion. That is a red flag for me and his stock has to be trending down at this point.”
He also gives the flip side though, why others in the industry still have him as the second-ranked pick: “So what is keeping Byfield at No. 2 for the masses? His potential — the upside to be a No. 1 centre in his prime. That is undeniable. His ceiling is sky high and quite comparable to Evgeni Malkin. His package of size and skill, skating and playmaking, will be hard to pass on come draft day — once, let alone three times.”
DobberProspect’s Cam Robinson reiterates Fisher’s second point, and takes it to another level by having Byfield as his top-ranked player – over Lafrenière. For his reasoning, Robinson says:
“Byfield possesses the immense potential to be a rare and special type of player. A centre so large and skillful that matchups will cease to phase him. A kingmaker of a man. The way he can manipulate his body with possession and under duress is wildly impressive and he’s barely 17 years old. And while his explosiveness can appear less-than-stellar due to his length, he generates so much power in his stride that it does not take long for him to get up to high gear. His game continues to evolve each day, week, month.”
Related: 2020 NHL Draft Guide
TSN’s Craig Button has Byfield second as well but keeps the door open for Byfield taking that top spot: “Byfield is the one player who has shown he could eventually surpass Lafreniere. He has the hands and offensive ability that remind you of Evgeni Malkin and the determination to be a 200-foot player like Anze Kopitar.”
Sticking with TSN, Bob McKenzie also gave his thoughts about Byfield, although unlike Button, McKenzie hints at a potential move down the rankings:
“Traditionally, scouts don’t hold the lack of WJC performance against a prospect. Conventional wisdom is prospects can only help, not hurt, themselves at the WJC. But when Byfield wasn’t very good in the CHL Prospects Game in Hamilton in mid-January, some scouts – as well as a number of NHL general managers who personally attended the game – did voice some questions. Not enough to knock him out of the No. 2 spot – Byfield, by the way, has for the most part continued to be dominant and productive in his post-WJC games for the Wolves – but enough to flag it for further scrutiny.”
With the questions around Byfield at these best-on-best events and the surge of Germany’s next star Tim Stützle, many have flipped those two. Even Lucas Raymond has found himself above Byfield in some cases. But is this really justified?
Breaking Down Byfield’s Game & Ceiling
For what it’s worth, Byfield stands strong at number two for me, in a tier above Stützle, Raymond, and the others. In my opinion, it’s not close. For proof of why, take a look at the highlight video below and let’s take a closer look at Byfield’s play.
Byfield has the size of an NHLer. At 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, he has the size to step into the league right now and hold his own strength-wise. That’s not an easy feat at just 17 years old.
With his size, you might think that the first-overall pick from the 2018 OHL Draft wouldn’t have the speed to match. You’d be wrong. Byfield has a long, strong stride that allows him to separate from the opposition as he hits his top speed. He’s light on his feet, able to accelerate quickly and take turns with ease on great edges.
He matches his skating ability with surprisingly soft hands. He controls the puck extremely well, dictating the pace of the game whenever he has it on his stick. He’s very creative, makes great passes, and combined with his speed he can be very crafty at getting around opponents.
His hockey sense is among the best in this class. He reads the play so well and as the quarterback of his team, he’s always an offensive threat. Adding to this is a shockingly accurate shot, whether that’s a wrist shot, a powerful slap shot from the point or a one-timer from the top of the circle.
Without the puck, opposing teams should be worried. He’s very likely to get it away from you through a hard forecheck or an effective backcheck. He causes a great number of turnovers with his long reach and his size and strength allow him to push opposing players off the puck. And remember, he’s still 17 years old. He’s still growing and he’ll continue to get stronger.
At this point, Byfield has all of the tools to be a number-one centreman in the NHL. While he’ll likely need another year in the OHL, he could step into the NHL in 2021-22 in a middle-six capacity and be ready to take it over in 2022-23 if he hasn’t done so by that point already.
The NHL comparison from Fisher and Button was Evgeni Malkin. Steve Kournianos compares Byfield’s playmaking and offensive awareness to Auston Matthews. Both of those comparables are elite, sure-fire number one centremen in the league. Friendly reminder – both were number one picks.
Defending Against Byfield’s Doubters
The biggest criticism against Byfield seems to be his play internationally, especially at the World Juniors (WJC) and in the CHL Top Prospects Game (TPG). In both, Byfield was never really a standout performer and at some points was nearly invisible on the ice. I’m not refuting that. I am, however, saying that it doesn’t matter.
First of all, it’s extremely hard to judge a player through eight games (seven games at the WJC and one for the Top Prospects Game). This is an extremely small sample size when you consider the fact that Byfield played a total of 60 games this season. Here’s how that breaks down:
- OHL: 45 games, 32 goals, 50 assists, 82 points, 1.82 points per game (P/G)
- WJC: 7 games, 1 assist, 1 point, 0.14 P/G
- Hlinka Gretzky Cup: 5 games, 3 goals, 2 assists, 5 points, 1.00 P/G
- Canada/Russia Series: 2 games, 2 assists, 2 points, 1.00 P/G
- TPG: 1 game, 0 points, 0.00 P/G
Over his total 60 games? That’s a 1.50 P/G mark. This was a strong year for the big centreman, and eight games don’t come near to the big picture.
Let’s look even closer at the WJC too. Byfield was a 17-year-old playing against the best players in the world under 20 years old. That’s two very big years of difference and development. He’s been heavily compared to Lafrenière’s MVP performance in the tournament, which isn’t a fair comparison.
Yes, Lafrenière put up an incredible 10 points in five games. However, it’s important to note that the projected first-overall pick is 10 months older than Byfield. He’s actually a year ahead of him in development. A better comparison would be to look at Lafrenière’s 2019 WJC – one point in five games. Sound familiar? They were both used in depth roles and weren’t put in a position they were used to with the offense running through them.
But wait – there’s more. Byfield’s 1.82 P/G rate is the best among all under-18 players in the OHL, tied with 111-point Cole Perfetti. That rate is the fourth-best in the last decade for a U18 player and the best since 2014-15 when Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, and Dylan Strome all had higher. That’s quite the company.
For what it’s worth, Lafrenière had a 1.72 P/G rate in his U18 season in 2018-19. He then exploded in 2019-20 with a P/G of 2.15. If I was a betting man, I’d bet on Byfield putting up something similar in 2019-20 if he sticks in the OHL.
Byfield Might Be the Best Player of the 2020 NHL Draft Class
Here’s the big statement. Whether or not he goes in the top two (he should), Byfield has the tools and is on track to potentially be the best player of this class. Yes, Lafrenière is right up there as well, he drive offense and he’s a very dynamic player. But Byfield looks like he will be that bona fide, number one centreman at the NHL level and has an offensive toolkit that matches – if not exceeds – the Rimouski Océanic forward’s.
It seems that some have soured on the big, young player and I hope this has helped to show why you should not sleep on Byfield. By this time next year, the one-year looks back at the 2020 NHL Draft will show the Byfield is at the very least the second-best player of this draft class, if not the best. You can quote me on that.
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Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.