McDavid, Eichel. Matthews, Laine. Hischier, Patrick. Dahlin, Svechnikov. Hughes, Kakko.
It seems like in recent memory, there have been consensus players at the top of a draft class that compete with each other all season for the prize of being selected first overall. While Lafrenière’s hold on this draft class has been McDavid- and Dahlin-esque, Quinton Byfield has been the consensus #2 for as long as I can remember. In fact, many scouts and analysts who have commented publicly have noted that Byfield is the only challenger to Lafrenière’s top status due to his relative age, unimaginable ceiling, and top-tier production in the Ontario Hockey League.
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Let’s start by noting an important fact: Byfield is still 17 years old, and will be until August. This makes him one of the youngest players in the draft, and among the consensus rankings of first-round picks, only Yaroslav Askarov, Jake Sanderson, and Jan Mysak are born around the same time. You can’t fault any player for their birthdate, but it’s context that’s especially relevant when evaluating Byfield. One of the bigger concerns I’ve heard around drafting him this early is people being skeptical of just how much of his dominance is due to him being bigger and stronger than his peers — an advantage that usually evaporates quickly at the NHL level for junior-aged players who are ‘physically mature’. Byfield’s relative age helps make his case, because while the players he’s been playing with might not have his frame, they’re often stronger than him due to the extra development time and could use that to their advantage. Rather than dummying opposing players with physicality, it’s Byfield’s ability to make high-end plays with pace where he utilizes his frame the most.
We’ll dig into this more later, but Byfield’s consistent top production throughout his career also reassures me about this issue. Take a look at his statistics from his bantam and midget days. In a full season of work, Byfield around ~30 points clear of the next player. It’s no surprise that the Sudbury Wolves made him the top pick in a strong 2018 OHL Draft class, and Byfield rewarded their efforts — leading his team in scoring with 61 points in 64 games en route to OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honours.
This past season, Byfield upped his production to another level, recording 82 points in 45 games to rank fifth in the league in points-per-game with 1.82. That mark is tied for second with Cole Perfetti among draft eligible players in the OHL this season, behind Marco Rossi’s 2.14, but ahead of top 2019 draft picks like Arthur Kaliyev, Akil Thomas, Philip Tomasino, and Ty Dellandrea. Remember, Byfield is basically a full year or two younger than most of these first- and second-round talents.
His international resumé is where this analysis gets interesting. There’s a continuous debate in the scouting community as to how much international play matters. Some say it does — it’s a chance to see top players in an age group compete against the best in the world in a meaningful, high-pressure situation that can be likened to an intense playoff series. Others say that it doesn’t — with the inherently small sample (<10 GP) nature of these tournaments making them volatile for analysis, especially when players are usually playing with different linemates, and in different roles than they’re used to.
When you compare Byfield and Lafrenière, this is where their game starts to differ, and it’s honestly hard to tell how much of it is due to talent versus opportunity. It’s also one of the areas where Byfield’s age works against him, as it often means that evaluators have had less of a chance to see his game, and early on in his career, they were watching a player grow into his frame and might not appear to be as reliable. Byfield played in all three of the major international tournaments he’s been eligible for (U17s, Hlinka, U20s), but has had less of an impact than one might expect. If these were normal times, Byfield would’ve led the Canadian U18 squad and (likely) dominated the tournament, silencing many doubters, but instead, it’s a missed opportunity for him to correct this perception of his game.
As a HockeyProspect’s Brad Allen put it on a recent WTYKY podcast episode:
“I can’t imagine how dangerous your team would be with a Brady Tkachuk, Quinton Byfield line. Like, that’s just not fair. Byfield is a machine off-the-puck and has a ridiculous pace. He’s probably going to end up being 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. You put that with Brady Tkachuk in front of the net? Good luck. That’s a pretty remarkable thing to see.”
Currently listed at 6-foot-4, 194 pounds — that Byfield is able to do everything he does while having one of the largest frames in this year’s draft class is something that was mentioned consistently in all of the scouting reports I read.
It starts with his speed, which is something I always worry about when I hear about a “big” player receiving praise. It’s hard that the players surrounding Byfield in Tim Stützle, Lucas Raymond, and Jamie Drysdale are all known as gifted skaters — especially in terms of agility — but let me make something clear: Byfield is no slouch in this area, either. In fact, many of the reports I read ranked Byfield’s top speed as ahead of all three, owing to the power he’s able to generate through the lower body as he’s moving the puck up the ice:
How many current NHLers move as well or better for their size than Quinton Byfield does at 6’4 215?— Evan (@Shattenkirk) March 9, 2020
Either way, Byfield’s mix of straight line, motor and agility is next level. pic.twitter.com/jkDsah3hN8
He shows signs of being able to generate breakaway-level speed against NHL competition, and it’s a skill that generates a high-level of controlled exits out of the defensive zone that often turn into offensive zone entries. The best way to defend Byfield appears to be to stop him before he gets going — taking advantage of the time it takes him to accelerate his frame to top speed.
While his edge work and agility isn’t on the same level, reports noted that he’s elusive for such a massive target, and when you combine that with his soft hands, he’s able to manoeuvre out of crowded areas with relative ease. When you’re watching the highlight pack, look for how shifty he is at top speed, as his mobility to change direction or cut to the inside off the rush is what helps make him such a deceptive player and will translate into generating dangerous opportunities at the pro level.
The last strength I’ll touch on is his hockey sense, especially because that’s what makes Lafrenière such a special talent, and since I’ve seen some reports of people doubting Byfield’s ability here. In the offensive zone, Byfield has the ability to utilize his physical tools in space, and is consistently looking to send pucks into dangerous areas of the ice. He’s creative, using the boards and even the back of the net to his advantage. His defensive game, though, especially as a younger player, is underrated. It’s a common concern among young players to have to work on their defensive game. It’s currently Stützle’s big knock, and a relative strength of Byfield and Raymond’s. We often talk about how quality of teammates can impact a player’s offensive production, but it has a similar effect defensively, too. That Byfield has been Sudbury’s lone star means that he’s consistently given tough matchups and has had to learn to play in all-situations to give his team a chance to win. He backchecks consistently, is actively involved in breakups and puck retrievals, and his long reach helps him pursue pucks and interfere with passing lanes. It’s this aspect of his game that makes him more “NHL ready” than his offensive ability.
If you’d like to see the top aspects of Byfield’s game in action, Josh Tessler from Future Considerations compiled an insightful Twitter thread that you can check out.
Let’s start with his OHL production. One fact that makes itself very clear is that Byfield, Rossi, and Perfetti are all extremely gifted scorers, and to have them all in the same draft class is unprecedented. In almost all the metrics I looked at, these three were together in some facet.
Starting with the most limited of statistics we have available to us, points, you can see that both last year and this year, Rossi and Perfetti actually had stronger rookie seasons than Byfield. Quality of teammates comes into play here, though, with Rossi suiting up for the Eastern Conference’s top team in Ottawa and Perfetti having first-rounders Owen Tippett, Bode Wilde, and a talented supporting cast in Saginaw last season. Byfield and Perfetti had the same points-per-game mark this season, with Byfield slowing down a bit after missing a 10-game chunk after the World Juniors before ramping up his production before COVID-19 paused play indefinitely.
Utilizing the invaluable data compiled at Pick224.com, we can illuminate some differences between the players. At even-strength, Byfield ranked second in the league to Hamilton’s Jan Jenik in even-strength primary points per game (goals, first assists), and 10th in terms of relative impact on goals scored. When Byfield was on the ice, Sudbury scored 62.5% of the goals. When he was off? A sub-par 47%. While Rossi and Perfetti were ahead of Byfield in terms of impact on goals scored — their teams were still >50% without them, a sign of their team’s quality. Byfield was not much of a threat on the powerplay, but that was an issue for the Wolves as a whole.
Among all skaters in 2019-20, Byfield ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in the following rate categories:
- As an indication of his shot, expected goals per 60 (xG/60) — 95th percentile
- As an indication of his passing ability, shot assists per 60 — 93rd percentile
- Controlled zone entries per 60 — 98th percentile
- Controlled zone exits per 60 — 93rd percentile
- Backcheck involvement — 95th percentile
- Break Ups (including interceptions, won puck battles, steals and successful poke checks in the defensive zone) — 93rd percentile
- Offensive Zone Retrievals (dump-ins against that he retrieved) — 93rd percentile/
While his success rate on entries and exits weren’t as high, the fact that Byfield was attempting them as much as he was indicates how much he was relied on by his team as the primary puck carrier. It might be a learning curve for Byfield to learn how to utilize his teammates at the next level, especially with passing in transition, but if he does, he’ll become that much more of a dangerous player who can beat a defence in multiple ways.
The last piece of data I’ll share is about his international play. Unlike some, I count Byfield even making Canada’s U20 team as a win, despite him only recording a point in seven games. The reality is that draft eligible players just don’t make Team Canada — only 14 have since 09-10, with Lafrenière, Drysdale, Byfield, and Dawson Mercer counting for 30% of the entire decade’s crop when they made the team this past year. Byfield’s production and role was similar to Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Couturier’s, and of those 14 players, only first-overall picks (Hall, McDavid, likely Lafrenière) have had production greater than a point-per-game. It’s no surprise to see Stützle and Drysdale receive World Junior “bumps” in their rankings, but I don’t think Byfield’s lack of production should be a knock on his play.
Other than his underwhelming production in best-on-best tournaments, there are a couple of aspects of Byfield’s game that need work.
First: Byfield should continue to round out his physical game so that he’s able to maximize his impact on a shift-to-shift basis. He’s got elite size that you can’t teach, and it’s just a matter of developing his strength in a similar manner to Brady Tkachuk’s where he’s able to tolerate holding onto the puck longer, get nastier along the boards, and come out of every physical battle with the puck.
The other area of his game that needs work is his puck control, and that’s the skill that we saw fail him at the U20s. He’s often able to skate himself into dangerous positions, but can lose track of where he’s protecting the puck relative to his body and hence, have it knocked off his stick by a player with quicker acceleration. Becoming a more effective puck protector and applying his gifted hands efficiently when first entering the offensive zone will be vital — especially as a centre. We know that he has the ability to protect the puck in tight, he just needs to do it consistently.
Finally, I want to recognize that many criticisms about Byfield’s game are less about Byfield, and more about the players around him. In the OHL, Marco Rossi’s historic production as a draft-eligible skater supplants Byfield, whereas internationally, he’s always played second-fiddle to Cole Perfetti. At the recent World Juniors, Tim Stützle was the flashy kid who burst onto the scene, playing his high-octane game against men, while Jamie Drysdale stepped up to showcase that he is likely the modern right-shot defenceman that teams work so hard to find. Meanwhile in Sweden, Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz are probably the closest “career” comparisons to Byfield, with a history of record-breaking production at the junior-leagues, but even they played against men this year. I’m not sure how scouts and analysts can “correctly” reconcile this; ultimately, it comes down to what skills teams value and the translatability of that toolkit to the NHL.
The Fit with Ottawa
What keeps Byfield in the #2 spot relative to Stützle, Raymond, Rossi, Perfetti, Lundell, Drysdale, and Askarov is his ceiling.
If he’s able to grow his offensive game when surrounded by quality teammates — like Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, and Drake Batherson — Byfield could be the missing cog at centre that the Sens desperately need. I’d argue that in franchise history, the team has only really had two “first-line centres” in Alexei Yashin and Jason Spezza. Byfield could be the elusive third.
While there are details of his game as a centre in terms of faceoffs and defensive zone retrievals where he’s beat by the more mature Marco Rossi, that Byfield is already such a depended on player at his age is astounding, and his tools for a player of his size are scary to think about at the pro level, where incremental differences in skill can decide a game. He won’t have the pure speed of Formenton and Norris, but it’s not a comparison in terms of of Byfield and Logan Brown’s ability to play with pace. It just isn’t an issue with Byfield.
I started the scouting report section with a quote talking about the enticing possibility with a Tkachuk — Byfield line. It’s also encouraging to know, however, that if the Sens put Norris with Brady, Byfield can bring the size element down the middle on the other line and can take on the role of a primary puck carrier. With the league trending smaller, a player with blessings in a similar manner to Evgeni Malkin is so rare, with few comparables. Yes: that makes Byfield’s projection a little bit riskier because we just haven’t seen many players like him, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything significant to point to in his career-to-date that softens his top-line NHL projection.
Like Colin said: I’m not a scout, these people are. Read and support their work.
“A physical specimen who blends exceptional power to a speed-driven, skill game. His quick hands allow him to maneuver in tight spaces, while the long reach propels his puck-protection. A mammoth of a man at just 17. He’s not the best player today, but his upside is too large to ignore.”
— Cam Robinson, Dobber Prospects (has Byfield ranked #1)
“Any concerns about Byfield’s skating or puck skill among scouts have surely faded by now. These days, Byfield’s top speed has progressed to a point where he can make a ton of things happen through the middle of the ice and his hands help him make small area plays that kids his size normally can’t. If I have one outstanding concern with Byfield’s game it’s his defensive play. There are little things like his faceoff ability (he’s 50 percent on draws this season, which normally translates to the mid-to-high 40s at the NHL level) and more pronounced things like his first couple of steps and the way they can contribute to him standing around instead of closing off on opposing players, as well as his tendency to misread plays. Otherwise, it’s all there. He can play with pace, he’s dangerous in tight, he can score from mid-distance with his release, he’s extremely hard to take the puck off and he’s an excellent playmaker for his size, routinely making plays through defenders that some high-skill smaller players even tend to struggle with.”
— Scott Wheeler, The Athletic (paywall)
“Despite being one of the younger players in this draft class, 17-year-old Byfield is one of the most physically advanced. He has a massive frame, skates with power and speed, and has exceptional hands for a player his size. The fact that he’s a center has some teams wondering if he can challenge Lafreniere for the top spot, but Byfield needs to become a little more consistent and maybe even a little meaner. However, when he is playing at his best, he’s dominant, and it’s hard not to look at those performances and wonder how much he can change the fortunes of a franchise if he can bring that same level night in, night out.”
— Chris Peters, ESPN (paywall)
(for more, check out this playlist on YouTube)
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