It's taken some time, but Kings' Byfield enjoying a breakout year

“There’s not too many six-foot-five guys who care about defence like he does. He works harder than so many players in this league. He’s good at stripping pucks and he’s got the rest of his game going, the dangling, the scoring.”

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The Edmonton Oilers might be the hated foe for most Los Angeles Kings’ players after two straight heated playoff runs but for Quinton Byfield there’s a tug at his heart-strings as he looks across the hall.

His long-time agent Jeff Jackson, who first took on Byfield as a 14-year-old back in Ontario, is in his first year as Oilers’ CEO of hockey operations. Byfield has also worked out in the summer months with Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid, Jackson’s most illustrious former client.

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But, once the puck is dropped Monday night the friendships will be put aside for the 21-year-old Byfield, who is the poster boy for Rush to Judgement as the 2020 second overall draft pick who is now on pace for 60 points in his break-through NHL season.

He was a centre in junior, now he’s an NHL winger with 42 points (18 goals) in 54 games today. When Kings’ captain Anze Kopitar, his ofttimes linemate and mentor eventually retires, Byfield could easily move back to the middle.

“It sucks that he’s (Jackson) not my agent anymore. I’ve known him forever. He was my agent starting in minor midget. I think I was 14. But I wish him well,” said Byfield, who now has Dave Gagner as his agent.

“I wasn’t too surprised when it (moving into management here) happened, because he’s Connor’s agent and he had a lot of guys on Edmonton. He had also worked in it (assistant GM and director of hockey operations with the Maple Leafs) before.”

Byfield only played six NHL games his first year after being drafted in 2020. Next season he broke his ankle and was in COVID protocol for two months.

Last season, he had just three goals and 22 points in 53 games and 15 points (nine goals and six assists) in 16 games in the minors, but was quietly playing with two sprained wrists.
He was very good in the six-game playoff against the Oilers last spring with four points.

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Tim Stutzle, who was selected third overall pick in the 2020 draft clearly broke in much quicker and had 90 points last season with the Ottawa Senators. But, this season, it’s evened out, 42 points for Byfield and 53 for the German-born Stutzle.

“Took some time. Covid didn’t help, also injuries.  I was feeling my way,” said Byfield, who was only a month away (Sept. 15) from not being eligible for the 2020 draft. “It takes time to get used to the NHL speed, also lots of travel. Now it’s starting to come.”

Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty was a believer in Byfield even if he didn’t break into the NHL with a bang like Stutzle.

“I always knew this was going to happen with Q. A lot of people were crapping on a second overall (pick) not producing,” said Doughty. “You come into the league and there’s so many things thrown at you (teenager) and that’s (playing against men) is one of them. But he’s huge. It was just getting his confidence and playing minutes.”

“There’s not too many six-foot-five guys who care about defence like he does. He works harder than so many players in this league. He’s good at stripping pucks and he’s got the rest of his game going, the dangling, the scoring.”

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Byfield’s skating has always been above average for a 225-pound kid. but he’s also worked a couple of years with Barb Underhill, the former world champion figure skater, currently Tampa’s skating coach, on his skating stride, his cross-overs, his power.

“She’s helped me keep my posture up, more upright… also working on my edges,” said Byfield.

“Using my size and speed with my length (six-foot-five).”

In junior (Sudbury Wolves), Byfield had the puck all night and was bigger than just about every other teenager. When he got to the NHL, though, he got knocked off the puck in the corners in battle situations. He didn’t have the, quote-unquote, man strength yet. He does now. He gets lower in the corners, so he’s more stable, like Leon Draisaitl.

“He’s really good at using his body, his size and strength to advantage,” said Byfield. “I’ve tried to do similar stuff. Get a bit lower to create separation.”

What’s he learned from Kopitar, 36, who has 1,187 points, two Cup wins and two Selkes, and could easily be a first-ballot Hall of Famer? A laundry list of things.

“On the ice, it’s how important defence is, playing at both ends ,when you’re coming to the next level (from junior),” said Byfield. “He’s showed me that every game… that if you play good defence it creates good offence.”

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In junior, it was a different story.

“Exactly. I would be doing circles (not stopping and starting),” he said.

There’s less responsibility as a young NHL player on the wing than at centre, too. Not as many match-ups against, say Connor McDavid or Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon or Auston Matthews.

But, there’s lots of heavy lifting the corners.

“I’ve gained a new respect for playing the wing. Growing up I would be thinking ‘why can’t my winger get this “puck) out?’” he laughed.

“It’s a hard position, lots of battles. You’re down low a lot as a centre, as a winger you’re on the boards. You’ve got the D pinching down on you and you have to get the puck out. Lots of different plays you have to make.”

Byfield’s sweat equity is the most revealing to his coach.

“The one thing that impresses me most about Q is his work ethic,” said interim Kings head coach Jim Hiller, who replaced Todd McLellan in early February.

“For a high draft to come into the league and have that type of work ethic… when you have that, you are going to get better. That’s what we’re seeing.”

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