Los Angeles Kings fans were given a taste of what’s to come recently, as 2020 second-overall pick Quinton Byfield was given a six-game stint in the NHL. The Kings have been patient with his development but decided that it was time to give their future star his first look in the NHL. Despite only one point in the six games, most fans were left impressed by his short cameo on the team. With his time in the NHL likely over for this season, now would be a great time to look back at how he did.
How He Was Used
When it was announced that Byfield was going to make his NHL debut, a big question was how coach Todd McLellan would utilize the young forward. Would he be sheltered on the bottom six, or given top-line minutes? It was clear from game one that McLellan had full faith in Byfield to play big minutes, as he finished his NHL debut with 17:59 minutes of time on ice (TOI). He would see his TOI slightly decrease from that point on and finish his six games with an average TOI of 15:01. 15:01 was still a big show of faith from McLellan, as this put Byfield amongst the top five in TOI for Kings forwards. His use on both the power play and penalty kill further cemented McLellan’s faith in the young center.
It was not only his TOI that was notable during his first six games but also his linemates – he centered three different wing pairings. For one game he had Austin Wagner and Andreas Athanasiou on either side of him, for two games he had Athanasiou and Adrian Kempe, and for the other two games, he had Athanasiou and Trevor Moore. There were two constants with Byfield’s wingers — one being Athanasiou and the other being speed on either side of him. It’s clear that McLellan wanted to surround him with a lot of speed, wanting his line to play a fast-paced game that backed defenses off. I imagine McLellan was hoping that speedy wingers would complement Byfield’s own speed and his playmaking. While this was effective at times, there was rarely any end product from his line.
Byfield’s positives were often seen in flashes during his six games. There would be shifts where the puck would stick to him and it seemed impossible to pry it away. Where he would get the puck along the boards and seemingly carry the entire opposition team up the wall with him. While it didn’t happen every shift, catching glimpses of what’s to come from this player along the boards was extremely exciting. Another positive I saw in his game was one that surprised me – he was very adept at finding the quiet areas of the ice. On multiple occasions, he ghosted into soft areas of the ice and found himself wide open in good scoring areas.
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This skill is often seen in the league’s best goal scorers, and in smaller players. It’s very hard to lose a 6-foot-4, 220-pound player on the ice, however, Byfield’s fantastic hockey IQ allowed him to make it happen. Another impressive facet of his game was the defensive contribution. While he isn’t going to be winning a Selke anytime soon, he proved himself capable of playing on the defensive side of the puck. He was strong on the puck in his own end and rarely found himself massively out of position. If he can continue to improve on the positives he showed, the Kings will be looking at an absolute, offensive powerhouse that can hurt teams in every way imaginable.
Where He Needs to Improve
Talking about where he needs improvement almost feels unnecessary. That’s not because he doesn’t need to improve, but because he needs improvement in the same areas almost every young center needs improvement. He struggled to consistently impact games with the puck on his stick, needs some big improvement in the faceoff circle, and will need to learn how to physically dominate games at the NHL level.
As I mentioned he showed glimpses of the ability to dominate games, specifically along the wall, however, he’ll need to show that ability more often before he’s a truly elite player. There should have been no expectation for him to do this in his first six games but, it is an area he needs to improve on. This consistency will likely start developing next season when he becomes a more regular NHL player, gets used to the league, and builds confidence.
Similarly, his faceoffs will improve as time goes on. Like Gabriel Vilardi, he will likely spend a lot of time with former King Jarret Stoll this offseason working on his faceoffs. Lastly, he’ll likely want to put on some muscle this offseason and begin getting used to the physicality of the NHL. There were times during his six games where you’d like to see a player of his size and profile impose himself a bit more physically. Once again, physical domination wasn’t an expectation for him right away — it is simply something that will need to be improved upon as he develops into the franchise player we all know he can be. While there are no glaring holes in his game, there are improvements that can, and will, be made as we see a superstar develop in front of our eyes.
The Future Is Bright
An impressive first six games are made more impressive when you remember that, not only was Byfield the youngest first-round pick in last year’s draft but he also was not supposed to be a professional player this year. Had the OHL season not been canceled due to COVID-19 he would have spent another season with the Sudbury Wolves. He proved himself ready to compete in the NHL and showed that he is on the cusp of being a dominant player. It won’t be long before the Kings are one of the most dominant teams through the middle, and Byfield will play a huge role in that dominance.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.