If you asked a group of NHL scouts to create the prototypical power forward in a lab, odds are the output would look a lot like Quinton Byfield.
“He’s pretty much good at everything,” Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe told Yahoo Sports.
Measuring out at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Byfield possesses a toolkit seldom seen in big-bodied players. He’s got high-end speed, which NHL Edge data can attest to, and an incredible motor to go along with it. When the puck is on his stick, the 21-year-old doesn’t look wonky or out of sync like a lot of players in his weight class do. He boasts poise and finesse as a puck carrier, and he’s a dual-threat offensive talent who's as dangerous of a shooter as he is a playmaker.
But with all the upside he’s shown over the last three years, Byfield — the second overall pick at the 2020 draft — had yet to put it all together at the NHL level, recording 33 points in 99 career games ahead of this season.
That has all changed to begin his latest campaign.
Fourteen games into the 2023-24 season, Byfield has recorded two goals and 13 points and ranks third among U22 scorers. While skating on the left wing alongside Anze Kopitar and Kempe on Los Angeles’ top line — one of the league's best trios right now — Byfield has been a driver at 5-on-5, with a sparkling 61% Corsi-for percentage serving as a testament to that. While the box score totals and fancy stats paint one part of the picture, Byfield’s true impact has been with the subtleties.
“He’s done a really good job on the forecheck and winning lots of battles,” Kempe explained. “That’s the way he’s got to play to become successful.”
Like most young prospects, Byfield had to re-invent his game to become an NHL regular.
“Coming into the league, I didn’t really know what type of player I was going to be,” Byfield told Yahoo Sports. “But now I have an identity and know what I’m trying to build towards.”
For Byfield, forming that identity wasn’t a linear process.
Oftentimes, there’s a misconception that players like Byfield will transition seamlessly to the NHL. When you see a prospect of the Newmarket, Ont., native's stature — who scored nearly two points per game in the OHL and had "NHL size" in his draft year— go second overall, it’s natural to assume he’ll effortlessly become a productive pro player. But a lot of the time, it’s actually the inverse.
“It’s typical [as a] first-round or top-five pick, you come into the league because you scored. And sometimes you scored easy in a league of young men. You come to the NHL and you’re trying to score easy against men and it doesn’t work,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan.
Part of the adjustment for players like Byfield, who was the youngest player in his draft class, coincides with physical maturation. But there’s also a mental aspect to it.
“You could just manhandle half the guys in junior, but now you’ve got to really control your body positioning the right way against older and stronger guys,” Byfield explained.
In junior, Byfield didn’t need to keep his head up as he could simply skate through traffic. In one-on-one battles, he was at an advantage in virtually every situation given his frame. But in the NHL, there's far less time and space to be had. Decisions have to be made quicker, as professional defenders close off gaps quicker and hit harder than teenagers.
Byfield was always going to need time before becoming an NHL regular, however, a slew of unforeseen circumstances dragged the process out longer. It began with his first season after being drafted, the 2020-21 Covid-shortened season.
With the OHL not operating, Byfield was one of a handful of teenagers who played in the AHL for the year. On paper, Byfield produced relatively well that year, recording 20 points in 32 games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign along with a six-game NHL stint at the end of the year. His AHL production, though, was deceiving. With taxi squads stripping NHL affiliates of up to five skaters and a goalie, the AHL’s quality of talent was heavily diluted that year. In that sense, it was almost a false start to turning pro.
The following year, Byfield injured his ankle during the preseason and was sidelined until December. Once healthy, Byfield spent 11 games in the AHL and recorded six points — all of which came in his final six games — before being brought back up to the Kings. That decision, while aided by the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be rather shortsighted. Just as Byfield began to get going in the AHL, Los Angeles recalled him and lined him up as a center in the NHL, which is no small challenge. As a result, Byfield says he was overthinking things often, which played a part in his limited output that year, recording just 10 points in 40 games.
“For me, I was used to just going out there and doing my thing. But then I started questioning some of the plays I was making,” Byfield explained. “I was just always thinking about not getting scored on. As a line, we weren’t playing too great and we were getting scored on a lot. I was trying to make safe plays instead of plays I know I’m fully capable of.”
Shifting Byfield over to the wing the following year for the 2022-23 season turned out to be the right call. That’s not to say he will never become a center in the NHL, but for a player like Byfield, developing confidence at the NHL level is paramount before considering the major transition to center.
After recording two points in his first six games of last season, Byfield contracted an illness that he says caused him to lose somewhere between 20-30 pounds. Once cleared to return, Byfield was sent to the AHL for about a month and a half where he dominated, recording 15 points in 16 games and setting the stage for another extended NHL look. The Kings recalled him and decided to shift him over to the wing.
“That’s not an easy thing,” McLellan said of the position change. “But with that came confidence and it’s allowed him to gain more minutes.”
Since January of last year, Byfield’s game has been developing on an upward trajectory. That half-season with the Kings last year was really the catalyst for this season.
“I have a new respect for playing wing,” Byfield said. “I always thought you just threw the puck up to them and they’ve got to get it out. But it’s a lot tougher when you’ve got a defense pinching. There’s a lot going on, from a winger's perspective, that I didn’t know when I was playing center.”
Since transitioning to the wing, Byfield has thrived at leveraging his strengths to support skilled players.
While playing alongside Kempe and Kopitar for the majority of last season, Byfield recorded 22 points in 53 games before recording another four points in six playoff games against the Edmonton Oilers.
“His tenacity, his forecheck, his ability to keep plays alive has really come a long way and it’s simply because he values it,” McLellan said.
A big part of Byfield being able to tap into that stems back to his physical maturation.
“You know, in some sense, he reminds me a little bit of [Leon Draisaitl] in Edmonton when he first came in,” McLellan said. “He was built differently, but he had to learn to carry that big body around. ‘Q’ isn’t as thick but he’s got a big body and now he can carry it around the ice. He’s got good stamina. We just want to keep him on the tracks that he’s on right now.”
At this rate, it’s only up from here for Byfield. And he’s just getting started.
“Right now, I’m the most confident I’ve been,” Byfield said.