Like everyone else in the hockey world, the Kings watched Quinton Byfield’s quiet World Junior Championships this winter with surprise.
In seven games with Team Canada, the big-bodied center collected one point. While his fellow draft-eligible prospects sparkled, Byfield’s playing time was slashed. In the gold-medal game in January, he was benched. In an otherwise stellar junior hockey career, it was a comedown without compare.
“It was definitely a bit of a learning curve for me,” Byfield said. “It was a humbling experience.”
But the Kings were also watching what came after, when Byfield scored 25 points in his final 15 Ontario Hockey League games, returned from a February wrist injury without missing a beat, and displayed a mental fortitude as strong as his 6-foot-4, 215-pound physical frame.
Eight months later, the Kings selected Byfield second overall in the NHL draft Tuesday, making the 18-year-old one of the important picks in franchise history.
The last time the Kings picked this high, they got Drew Doughty and four years later won the Stanley Cup for the first time. The expectations for Byfield — an Ontario, Canada, native who was the 2019 OHL rookie of the year, recorded 143 points in 109 games over the last two seasons with the Sudbury Wolves and became the highest drafted player of color in NHL history — will be almost as high.
Scouts love Byfield’s skating ability and physically imposing two-way game. At the junior level, he was already overpowering opponents. And many evaluators believe there’s a lot more physical development in store as he works toward reaching the NHL.
“Byfield is a big kid,” Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti said before the draft. “And he’s a lot differently built now than he was last year.”
For all Byfield’s on-ice attributes though, his response to the World Juniors was one the things that impressed Yannetti the most.
“A lot of times, these younger kids don’t deal with adversity,” Yannetti said. “People are begging them to play on a team at 14. People are handing them stuff. Agents are tripping over themselves to get to these guys. The coach is catering to them.
“When you get to the American League or the NHL the first thing you’re going to deal with is adversity — no matter how good you are. I liked the fact that I saw Byfield deal with adversity firsthand and deal with it well coming out of World Juniors.”
Byfield’s struggles as a then-17-year-old in an under-20 event were hardly unusual. When asked last month what he took from the experience, Byfield described it as an ultimate teaching moment.
“I’m still really grateful for the experience,” Byfield said. “Coming home with a gold medal is something you can never take away. Lessons like that, sacrificing just a little bit of what you can do for the team to win, I definitely can take that back and use that later on in my game.”
That’s exactly what the Kings will be hoping for, especially since Byfield isn’t yet considered NHL-ready. There’s a lot of room for the Kings’ newest prospect to grow, a lot of hurdles left to clear to make good on his No. 2 selection.
As expected, the New York Rangers made 18-year-old center Alexis Lafreniere the No. 1 pick.
Tim Stuetzle, another 18-year-old center whom the Kings strongly considered taking at No. 2, went third to the Ottawa Senators. Yannetti called the Byfield-Stuetzle decision the hardest the Kings had to make in his 13 years with the team.
With the sixth overall pick, the Ducks chose Jamie Drysdale, an 18-year-old defenseman from Canada.
At the start of the draft, held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he expected next season to begin on Jan. 1, 2021.