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2020 NHL Draft Top Prospects: Quinton Byfield has a rare combination of size and speed

Byfield has the potential to be a power forward, and could be the first centre to be selected this year.

Terry Wilson / OHL Images

Quinton Byfield’s draft season didn’t go quite the way he had hoped. A month after returning home from the World Junior Championship, a wrist injury knocked him out of action for three weeks. Just as he was getting back in his groove in March and looking forward to a playoff run with the OHL’s Central Division-leading Sudbury Wolves, the arrival of the coronavirus in North America brought a halt to the season, and soon afterward it was cancelled altogether.

The result was just 45 games to make a final impression on scouts ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft. But an incredible 45-game sample it was.

Birthplace: Newmarket, Ontario
Date of birth: August 19, 2002
Shoots: Left
Position: Centre
Height: 6’4”
Weight: 214 lbs.
Team: Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

In his second year of Major Junior hockey, he contributed 82 points for the Wolves, leading the club by nine points despite playing 12 fewer games than his closest teammate. He was fifth in the entire OHL with a mark of 1.82 points per game. It’s a number that hadn’t been seen from a first-year-draft-eligible player in the league since Matthew Tkachuk averaged 1.88 points per game in 2015-16, though even Byfield was tied by Cole Perfetti this eason, and both were eclipsed by an astounding mark of 2.14 from Marco Rossi.

Unsurprisingly, all three of those OHL forwards are projected to go in the top handful of picks this fall, but Byfield is universally regarded as the best prospect of the trio.

Elite Prospects

His offensive numbers are good enough to draw attention without any context, but seeing how they come about is the biggest reason for his optimistic projection. Byfield’s 6’4” frame gives him exceptional reach, and he has the hand skills to control the puck at the limit of it. He can easily pull the puck around defenders trying to poke it away from him, and easily protect it on his way through the neutral zone or in the attacking end.

With the confidence to confront opponents head-on, the combination of stick-handling and size lets him get through defensive lines and get close to the net. A quick, powerful release from close range earned him many of his goals this season, and on several occasions he looked like a prototypical power forward carving a path to the net.

His offence isn’t just a matter of him scoring all the goals himself. His playmaking ability is just as good as his finishing skills, including the ability to identify his teammates in passing lanes and send them accurate passes from anywhere in the zone. He is a true centreman, doing his best work in the middle of the ice when all options are available to him.

This is normally the part of a profile where a caveat is introduced for below-average skating that a big offensive player like Byfield has to overcome, but that’s not the case for him, and why he’s ranked so highly. He’s not just fast but has quick acceleration and great mobility for changes of direction. The combination of his skating skills and offensive reach was too much for many OHL defenders to deal with in his draft season.

He uses that speed in defensive situations as well, quickly closing off skating lanes for opposing forwards or tracking them down on the backcheck, where the puck is easily knocked away or stolen by an accurate sweep of his stick.

When he decides to throw his weight around, there isn’t much his peers could do to stop him, but one of the concerns with Byfield is that he’s often reluctant to use his size to his advantage. He’s not known for landing devastating hits along the boards or punching holes right through a defensive formation; things he shows flashes of and obviously has the ability to do. Instead he prefers more of a finesse game, using his hands to go around obstacles rather than his legs to go through them.

That could just be a result of not fully understanding what his body can do at this stage of his career. To this point he’s been able to find success just by using his skating and skill. A move to a higher level will present new challenges, and he would quickly find that imposing himself more physically would improve his results.

Perhaps also stemming from just generally being better than his opponents through his amateur career, his effort level waxes and wanes at times. He’ll normally be seen fighting hard to regain pucks, create turnovers in defensive situations, and find a way to get his team on the board, but occasionally some indifference will creep into his game for one period or a small stretch of games.

Rankings

Elite Prospects: #2
Future Considerations: #2
Hockey Prospect: #3
McKeen’s Hockey: #3
McKenzie/TSN: #2
NHL Central Scouting: #2 (North American skaters)

Byfield was a fairly clear-cut number-two prospect heading into the 2019-20 season, but the progression of Tim Stützle has created a debate on which of the two will be the first centre selected in the draft. Their relative performances at the 2020 World Junior Championship, where many of the world’s top young players compete against one another, favoured the German centre over the Newmarket native, with Stützle playing a bigger role and contributing five points to Byfield’s zero. It’s not a fair comparison when considering Stützle was his country’s biggest hope for sticking in the tournament while Byfield was a rare addition to Team Canada as an undrafted prospect, but impressions were left on scouts over the two weeks of the tournament nonetheless.

Byfield is one of the youngest players on the board this year, born less than a month before the cutoff of September 15, 2002. Stützle is seven months older, while the top prospect in the class, Alexis Lafrenière, was born about a month too late to be in the 2019 class. There’s still plenty of time for Byfield to work on his weaknesses and hone his strengths to become the complete package.

Later birthdays have been a trend in recent years among the first centres selected on draft day. Byfield would be the youngest of a group comprised of Nico Hischier, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Jack Hughes dating back to 2017.

HockeyProspecting

Especially in the past two years, there has been a lot of discussion about whether the players should have gone directly to the NHL the year after being selected. After a rapid progression through training camp, Kotkaniemi was quite effective in his first season for the Montreal Canadiens (more productive than the Hockey Prospecting model above predicted), but some issues with his fitness in his rookie season became larger concerns in his sophomore year. Hughes was selected first overall a year ago as the best player in his class, but had significant struggles in his first season with the New Jersey Devils.

With some parts of his game still needing to be refined, Byfield’s outlook could probably be helped by more time in Junior hockey. He could work on some of his defensive play, focus on being more physical on the ice, and develop a few lacking parts of his offensive game. The teams that tend to make the earliest selections in the draft are usually desperate to turn their fortunes around, tending to rush new prospects into the team when they’re not ready, and existing deficiencies don’t get improved upon. Some of the flaws currently in the game of a 17-year-old player could follow him throughout his career if they’re not addressed in these formative years.

It is also true that the challenge of the league could provide the impetus to work on some of the consistency and physicality issues he has. His speed, size, shot, and playmaking skills will easily translate to the top level, so he will be effective no matter when he makes his debut. The question is really whether he has a career as a very good top-six forward, or progresses far enough to reach his ceiling of a power forward with game-breaking ability.