Kings Fans Should Not be Concerned With Byfield’s Development

Los Angeles Kings prospect Quinton Byfield is now 25 games into his rookie season, and his play has been a hot topic amongst fans. His seven points in those 25 games have led many to believe this has been a poor rookie campaign from the former second-overall pick, and doubts have crept into the minds of some. Of course, it would be nice to see more production from him, but there should be no concerns surrounding his development right now.

Early Season Injury

One big reason fans shouldn’t be concerned about Byfield’s production thus far is that he started the season with a serious injury. He missed just over two months with a left ankle fracture; not only is missing two months difficult in its own right but fracturing your ankle in hockey is devastating. One of Byfield’s biggest assets is his speed and agility for a player his size, and much of that agility comes from flexion in the ankle.

Quinton Byfield Los Angeles Kings
Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Losing power, and possibly confidence, in that ankle was always going to disrupt his play. At his best, he’s playing a high-octane game that relies on excellent skating and power to beat the opposition, and that’s hard to do with an ankle that isn’t 100%. Not only is there the physical aspect, but the mental one as well. He was given just 11 games in the American Hockey League (AHL) to prepare and was quickly thrust into the NHL.

Related: Kings’ Quiet Deadline Sets Team Up for Future Success

After missing two months, it is difficult to get your pacing back and it often takes time to get back up to speed. This is made even more difficult when you’re jumping into the best league in the world for just the second time. It’s clear that he’s more adjusted to the pace in the NHL now, and he will continue to find his feet. It’s easy to overlook how impactful an injury can be, especially on such a young player, but missing significant time due to an ankle fracture should not be overlooked, especially when your game relies heavily on skating.

Byfield’s Draft Projection

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Byfield at the draft was how NHL-ready he was. People saw a 6-foot-5, 210-pound young man and assumed he could jump straight into the NHL. In reality, he was always more of a project than some of his peers like Tim Stutzle or Lucas Raymond. Firstly, he is an extremely young player for his draft class; had he been born a month later, he would have been a 2021 draft pick instead. While the difference of six, seven, or eight months doesn’t seem like it would make a huge difference, it absolutely does. This can even be seen in the fact that players are more likely to be drafted if they’re born between January and March. It’s also important to remember that, while his size is one of his best assets, it can create some issues when going from junior hockey to the NHL, something coach Todd McLellan commented on recently.

“When you are 6-foot-5, you’re playing major junior, you don’t always have to use all 6-foot-5. When you’re chosen because of all your offensive skills, as a younger player, and 18-year-old, it’s hard to transfer those to the NHL. While you’re doing that, what else can you provide?”

Todd McLellan (from ‘Has the Kings’ Quinton Byfield ‘arrived’? His line with fellow youngster Rasmus Kupari is enjoying a moment”,’ The Athletic, March 23, 2022)

The question McLellan asks at the end of this quote is one he answers and I’ll circle back to later, but his point about learning to use your physical tools as a young player is very important. In junior, Byfield was so much bigger and so much better than everyone else that he never had to truly learn how to fully impose himself physically. He is now trying to develop that side of his game on the fly — defensemen will no longer let him play through the middle without touching him, he has to earn every inch of ice. I also found it very interesting going back and listening to both Bob McKenzie and Craig Button discuss Byfield when he was drafted.

Both analysts keep going back to the same phrase, “once he gets comfortable” and I think that’s so important to remember. It was always going to take him time to get comfortable in the NHL and it isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. He is following the development path that should be expected of him, a slightly late bloomer, who needs the time necessary to reach his potential. There have been slight issues with his processing at every level, but he’s always overcome them with time and the NHL will be no different. Fortunately, one of the many positives about this Kings roster is their depth up the middle with Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault, giving Byfield a sheltered role to take all the time he needs to develop into a superstar.

His Overall Play Has Been Solid

Yes, Byfield was drafted because he was a dominant offensive player and he needs to become that if he’s to reach anywhere near his draft day potential. However, that will come with time, and his impressive 200-foot improvement should not be ignored. Similar to Arthur Kaliyev, it’s clear that the team has heavily emphasized playing a complete game to Byfield, wanting him to be responsible defensively first and foremost. He has delivered on this as well; according to TopDownHockey’s model, Byfield is in the top 30 percent of forwards for defensive impact. Twenty-five games is a small sample size, but that is an encouraging sign for a player who had question marks surrounding his defensive game. Like Kaliyev, you can be confident that the offense will come, so seeing the defensive side of the game come so early is very encouraging.

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

It’s also important to remember the situation Byfield was put in upon his call-up. The King’s third line has been a problem all season, and no line combination has found success. After his call-up, he was placed on this line and predictably struggled. It’s hard to blame a rookie for coming in and struggling in a situation that every player has struggled in. Even Trevor Moore, who’s led the team in points since the start of 2022, couldn’t find offense on that line. His time on ice also must be considered. Until recently, he was playing fourth-line minutes, despite being on the third line on paper. It was always asking a lot to expect him to have a massive impact playing 10 minutes per game.

This isn’t to shift all blame away from Byfield, either, he could have played better and forced the coaching staff to give him more ice time with stellar play, but it is important to contextualize his struggles. Most people would agree that his play has improved significantly since the formation of the “champagne line” featuring him alongside fellow young forwards Gabe Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari. They were finally rewarded with a monster game on Tuesday, with Byfield grabbing two goals and an assist. I mentioned the need for him to find his pace and improve his processing at the NHL level and it appears he is starting to do that. He is also learning how to use his big frame, something McLellan mentioned when discussing the question he presented in the earlier quote.

“Some physicality. He was involved all over the rink – in piles, scrums, net front. Faceoff circle. Much more of a physical attitude and guess what, he scored.”

Todd McLellan

I wouldn’t expect Byfield to be a point-per-game player through the rest of this season, and I’m sure there will be more ups and downs through the last 18 games, but I’m confident we’ll see him continue to improve. Especially while he is playing with two high-skill linemates who can match his talent and pace of play. The coaching staff will have some difficult decisions to make when players begin returning from injury, and potentially splitting up Byfield’s line is one of the most difficult ones. Finishing out the season strong and making a postseason appearance will be huge for him and can set him up to have a very strong sophomore season. He will likely anchor the third line once again next season and this should give him the perfect opportunity to develop his offense in a more sheltered role.

More Patience For Byfield

There are plenty of people who will criticize Kings management for many things, but one thing fans certainly cannot criticize them on is their patience with young players. They know becoming a consistently effective NHL player can take time and they are not afraid to wait it out. As the team gets better, this will become more difficult, but they have set themselves up perfectly to give Byfield the necessary time to develop. With more patience, he will soon develop into a franchise cornerstone center.