Quinton Byfield ready to make most of shot in NHL, whenever it comes

Quinton Byfield is seen here with the AHL's Ontario Reign. (Ontario Reign)

Quinton Byfield is still new to this whole living alone thing, and all the hazards that come with it.

For instance, it’s probably not a good idea to eat a steak that’s already been twice frozen and thawed.

“My mom called me one night and I picked up and she said, ‘What am I making? What am I eating?’ I said ‘The steak,’ and she's like 'Oh, did you already thaw it?' I said, 'Once before and then I froze it again,' and she said, 'Oh, you can't eat that,” Byfield recalled with a laugh.

“So that was a close call.”

For the first time in his 18 years, Byfield is on his own without his parents, Nicole and Clinton, or a billet family to lean on while starring for the AHL’s Ontario Reign.

Housed at an L.A. County apartment complex where he’s neighbours with many of his teammates on the Los Angeles Kings’ farm team, the second-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft is figuring out how to be self-sufficient, while learning the ropes of professional hockey.

Much like off the ice, there have been some stumbles as he’s faced new challenges on the ice, but in 16 games for a Reign squad littered with rookies, Byfield has held his own, notching two goals and seven assists, good for sixth on the team.

“That's something I'm proud of: no matter what the score, wherever the game's going, I think I'm always competing my hardest and just going against older guys and trying to impose (my will) as much as I can,” said Byfield.

Just six months after he was selected by the Kings, the players taken before and after him, Alexis Lafreniere and Tim Stützle, respectively, both have more than 25 NHL games under their belts, prompting some experts to argue he’d be picked third in a redraft.

It’s easy to forget Byfield — who officially clocks in at 6-4, 215 — was one of the youngest players in the 2020 draft, seven months younger than Stutzle and nearly a year younger than Lafreniere.

But the Newmarket, Ont., native embraces the inevitable comparisons, measuring himself against their accomplishments and engaging in a friendly rivalry with his former world juniors teammate, Lafreniere.

“(Lafreniere) sent me a text after I had my one night I showed up, I guess, at the world juniors — I had six points — he gave me a good congratulation text there,” Byfield said self-deprecatingly.

“We're always excited for each other and I gave him a text after he scored his first goal as well. So we're always just looking forward to getting the best out of each other.

“You definitely want to be in the NHL and as soon as you can get there,” he continued.

“So you're looking at guys that are in your draft year that are up there, knowing that you really want to be up there as well. So you definitely use that as motivation.”

This is, after all, the Quinton Byfield whose point-per-game pace of 1.822 last year with the Sudbury Wolves made for one of the best U18 seasons in the OHL’s modern era.

The Kings, for their part, say they’re fortunate to have Byfield under their direct supervision with the 2020-21 OHL season postponed indefinitely.

“It's been a blessing for us. On our L.A. Kings team, we've got (Anze) Kopitar, as the No. 1 line centre, we've got Gabe Vilardi, who again is only 21-years old as a No. 2 centre — our centre position on the Kings, we're doing well up top here — so we're able to kind of have this development process unfold with Quinton and that's exciting,” said Nelson Emerson, the Kings’ director of player personnel, who praised Byfield for his coachability.

“Exciting” is a word that came up frequently in my discussion with Emerson, who struggled to find parts of Byfield’s game that haven’t left him impressed.

When pressed, Emerson said it’s Byfield’s skating that’s stood out the most. While he and the Kings knew of his talents before the draft, seeing them first-hand on a daily basis is an entirely different experience.

“His first three steps are absolutely lightning for a big guy and that's when you go, 'Holy cow, I've never seen this out of anyone before,’” he gushed.

“You're thinking back to every player that's gone through here or gone through the league, you see a guy who's 6-5, 220 and he has this ability out of corners to separate or to get out on plays or to go through the neutral zone. We see glimpses of that, and it just gets us out of our seat — it's actually incredible to watch.”

It’s also an ability Byfield has had to channel more consciously as he’s dealt with tougher competition at the AHL level.

“Just in transition, being a little bit faster there, because (in the OHL) you could probably burn a lot of guys, (but in the AHL) a lot guys are just as fast as you or maybe even a little faster. So you gotta really take what's given and use all your options,” he noted.

“And then getting zone play, guys are a lot stronger and they're a lot heavier in the corners, so you just gotta be moving your feet and you can't get pinned. Once you get pinned, it's hard to get out of those positions, so you just gotta roll with more deception and move your feet in the O-zone.”

Quinton-ByfieldQuinton Byfield is seen here playing with the AHL's Ontario Reign (Ontario Reign).

Though highlights have been hard to come by on an extremely young Reign squad (4-10-2) loaded with high-pedigree prospects, Byfield has flashed his quick hands — in particular, his “exceptional” talent for stickhandling in tight or with the puck in his feet — as evidenced by this nasty, between-the-legs power-play feed to Akil Thomas on Feb. 12.

“Up in the NHL, we have a problem with making plays in the slot and shots from the slot, but our minor-league team and Quinton lead in a lot of these categories on making plays to the slot,” Emerson said.

“Here's a guy who's 6-5, a big guy like that, who can skate, but he can also make those little plays. So, again, there's an example of why we get excited about our club and the future that he will have.”

When you add Byfield’s powerful, pro-level shot, which Nelson expects will only get harder and faster, into the equation, you’ve got all the components for a “special” player.

That's without taking into account the early leadership he's shown as the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history as he's dealt with the burdens that come with being a BIPOC in a majority white sport.

“He's a person who's ready, willing and he's out there. Again, as an 18-year-old — that's a lot. Give him credit. I’ve been very proud of him and our whole organization is,” said Emerson.

While there’s no doubt Byfield’s left a fantastic impression in an extended look that may have never happened without the pandemic, was it enough to earn him a spot with the big club if and when the OHL — the lone Canadian junior league not to resume play — begins its 2020-21 season?

It’s a conversation the Kings’ brass engages in every day, concedes Emerson, and one that revolves around ensuring a decision that is in Byfield’s best interest and results in him achieving his peak potential.

“We want to make sure when we decide to bring him up it's because it's the right situation for him,” said Emerson.

And while protecting Byfield from getting exposed in the NHL is a priority, it’s also a priority to get him around potential role models on the Kings, in particular, captain Anze Kopitar, a player he’s often compared to.

“It's been phenomenal to watch him throughout his career, but this year it's just amazing what he's doing,” Emerson said of the 33-year-old pivot, who has two Cups and two Selkes to his name.

“We know that is important for Quinton, and we know it's important for him to be around that to see that.”

Byfield, for his part, said he trusts the process and he’s grateful for his experience in the AHL as it’s allowed him to get comfortable in L.A. and stay focused on hockey.

But now he believes he’s ready for the next challenge — playing in the NHL and under the bright lights in Hollywood.

“Whenever I get my shot, I'm gonna make the most of it and try to stay up there,” said Byfield.

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