Kings Face Difficult Decision With Byfield

Most of the conversations surrounding the Los Angeles Kings recently have involved which forwards will make the roster? There’s a group of fringe forwards and prospects fighting for a spot that has been slowly thinned down over the last week. The Kings recently made it clear that most prospects will start the season out in the American Hockey League (AHL) — the only prospect not reassigned to the Ontario Reign was Quinton Byfield. Most people would agree that he looks NHL ready, so he should make the team, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, as the Kings must carefully navigate the development of their blue-chip prospect. So, let’s talk about the dilemma of where to play Byfield this season?

In the NHL

I think most fans are of the opinion that Byfield should be in the NHL this season. While I understand, and in some ways share their opinion, it isn’t that simple for the Kings. The issue is the team’s already logjammed forward group. As of today, this seems to be the locked-in top nine for opening night.

Viktor ArviddsonAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloPhillip DanaultAdrian Kempe
Lias AnderssonGabe VilardiVladimir Tkachev

Meaning, the only spot for Byfield would be as the fourth-line center. The dilemma now becomes, is playing fourth-line minutes really the best thing for his development? The benefits of playing him in the NHL are clear. The experience of playing NHL games, against NHL players, is impossible to replicate elsewhere and will be huge for his development. There’s also the positive of getting to practice with the NHL squad. Learning from experienced centers like Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault on a daily basis would be massive for him. The experience he would gain, even in a reduced role, could make it significantly easier for him to move into a top-six center role in the future. It could help remove the worry of thrusting him into a spot he isn’t ready for in the future, similar to what happened with Gabe Vilardi last season.

Quinton Byfield LA Kings
Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The issues with playing him in the NHL are usage and ice time. Playing on the fourth line and, maybe, the second power play, he would only be getting roughly 10-13 minutes a night. There’s also an issue with usage — his playstyle does not fit that of a fourth-line player. The team wants him carrying the puck into the zone and creating offense, not dumping the puck in and punishing defensemen who retrieve the puck in the corners.

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Of course, the Kings could allow their fourth line more freedom offensively — with the line consisting of Trevor Moore-Byfield-Andreas Athanasiou, they have the players to do this. But the issue then becomes, where does the team’s grit come from? Teams still need some sandpaper in their lineup and playing Byfield, and accommodating him onto the fourth line, could take this away. He is certainly ready for the NHL, but are the Kings ready to fit him into their lineup?

Playing in the AHL

The other option would be sending him back to the Ontario Reign. Sending him back down would come with its own positives and negatives. The increased ice time and special team usage would be a massive plus for him. He would likely serve as the team’s No. 1 center and would be one of their go-to players on the power play. Not only would the ice time be beneficial, but his usage would be huge for him. He is the future No. 1 center with the Kings — getting more used to that role, and the pressure that comes with it would be a huge plus.

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The worry with playing him in the AHL is that it can stall his development. He proved that he can be a dominant player in the minors last season — specifically during the middle of the season — and he might not gain much going back down to dominate. With that, you worry that he could pick up bad habits that will harm him in the NHL.

What to Do With Byfield

Developing players is a complex issue that changes almost daily, especially with players as young and talented as Byfield. The best decision for his development today could be very different come December. In my opinion, he should start the season with the Kings, on the fourth line. After nine games, he should be sent back down to continue his development as a first-line player in Ontario. I don’t want to see him spend extended time on the King’s fourth line, as I think it isn’t good for his development. While NHL experience is important, I think proper ice time and usage are more important. If it’s clear he’s too good for the AHL, then the team has to find a way to get him into a top-nine role in the NHL. This could mean trading players, or significantly reducing a current top-nine forward’s ice time.

Sudbury Wolves Quinton Byfield
Quinton Byfield formerly of the Sudbury Wolves (Photo by Chris Tanouye/CHL)

It’s important for fans to remember that whatever is best for his development, is the best decision for the Kings long-term. Fans might be upset if the organization decides he’ll develop best in the AHL this season, but it must be remembered that helping him reach his full potential is the most important thing right now. This is also an issue facing several of the team’s prospects — players like Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev, and Alex Turcotte all face the same developmental dilemma. The organization has been preaching patience from the fanbase for a while now and will probably need more while they develop the glut of prospects they have stockpiled.

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