LOS ANGELES — Each year, when the National Hockey League Draft comes around, yours truly gets a little excited about the stories I’ll be writing. Indeed, writing about young players who will be the future of the NHL is a refreshing change of pace from the more traditional feature stories that I might write during the season.
But the primary reason for the excitement is that I’m anticipating the high quality and thorough nature of my next stories because I’ve established a fairly long-standing tradition of doing one-on-one interviews with Los Angeles Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanetti just before the draft, and following each day of the draft.
Hopefully, your interest, dear reader, has already been piqued. But in case it hasn’t, you should know that Yanetti, a deep thinker who is extremely passionnate about his work (which he loves), provides tremendous insight and detail regarding the Kings and the draft, some of which may not be reported elsewhere due to deadlines and/or space constraints.
After all that, we’ll go deep with Yanetti on the first round of the 2020 draft in this story. We’ll follow with one or two more draft stories covering what the Kings did in Rounds 2-7 in the coming days.
Byfield, 18, is nearly 6-5, and weighs 222 pounds (both statistics provided by Byfield, who is listed at 6-4, 215 pounds).
“I’m a big, speedy center,” he said, during a virtual press conference held after he was drafted. “I can find my teammates, usually a pass-first guy, but I’m not afraid to take the shot. I can use my size to my advantage to beat a defender. I can use my hands as well, and either beat them on the inside or the outside with my speed and strength. I can really take it to the net, and I think that’s what I can really bring, offensively, to the table.”
“He’s a wonderful option at #2,” Yanetti told Frozen Royalty in late June, right after the NHL held the first round of the draft lottery. “Find the flaw in his game. He’s 6-4. People don’t realize—they think he’s a big, 6-4 guy who’s feasting on smaller competition. But he’s nowhere near his potential for growth yet. I didn’t find him to be a particularly strong player for his size. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t strong. But at 6-4, and at his size, there are players who are a lot stronger.”
“When he’s all said and done, he’s going to be a force,” added Yanetti. “He’s going to have two power forward elements. If you’re talking straight-on speed, he’s as good a skater as anyone in the draft. He can score, put points on the board, play defense. There isn’t a real flaw in his game.”
After selecting Byfield on Monday, Yanetti said, “Byfield is going to affect the game for 200 feet. He’s going to affect the game in the defensive zone and in the offensive zone. He’s going to bring speed. He’s going to bring size. He is going to affect the game in almost every aspect.”
The youngest player in this year’s draft class, Byfield had some butterflies on draft day.
“I don’t [usually] get too nervous, but I was pretty nervous and really excited for this moment that you’ve been waiting for all your life, and then you realize it’s finally happened,” he said. “[I’m just going to be] celebrating it with my family. It was super special, and I’m just cherishing that moment, I was just super excited, and a little nervous at the time.”
Having just made history as the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history, Byfield acknowledged with a nod that hockey has its challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. But for now, he wants to focus on hockey.
“The NHL’s doing a really good job with being inclusive and the awareness they’re getting out,” he said. “I think it’d be really nice if I got involved in that and spread the positivity, be a positive role model.”
“I’m definitely excited to help out and spread as much awareness as I can,” he added. “But I’m really just thinking about the draft. I worked my whole life for that and I’m just excited about that right now.”
Unlike many young forwards his age, Byfield is already pretty solid in his own zone, something he credited Wolves head coach and former NHL’er Cory Stillman for.
“Before coming to the OHL, I don’t think I was ever in my defensive zone,” he said. “He definitely helped me work in the defensive zone—penalty-killing, and all that.”
“He’s been through the process,” he added. “He played over 1,000 games in the NHL. He won a [Stanley] Cup. Whatever knowledge he gave me, I definitely took it to heart, and I really tried to put that into my game.”
As Yanetti alluded to back in late June, Byfield needed to get stronger, and that’s exactly what he has been doing during the pandemic.
“My whole off-season, I’ve been working with pros quite a bit to help me [make the transition] easier,” he explained. “I’ve gotten a little bit bigger. I’ve put on some weight, and I’m still working on my acceleration. That’s something that will definitely help me next year.”
The Kings were very impressed by the results of Byfield’s off-season training.
“He’s added a ton [of muscle],” Yanetti noted. “He works out with [former six-team NHL forward] Gary Roberts, who offers one of the preeminent training regimens. Four extra months at Gary’s [training facility] is six extra months somewhere else.”
As I reported in this space in early July, the Kings had two players, at the time, that they were considering for the second overall pick. What gave Byfield the edge?
“What really ended up separating him came down to [general manager Rob Blake’s] plan and philosophy,” said Yanetti. “It was very close between the players in this group. We’re talking very thin margins. They had areas in which they were clearly better than [the other players in the group], and there were areas where they were close to each other.”
“There weren’t a whole lot of negatives, so when you’re choosing which one of the positives you want, then you look at what we can do down the middle with Quinton,” added Yanetti. “If you look at our team right now, we have [Anze] Kopitar, who excels in every area of the game. Now you have to project a little. When we start to become a contender, our options are [Gabriel] Vilardi, [Alex] Turcotte, [Tyler] Madden, and [Jaret] Anderson-Dolan. Now you add Byfield into that mix. If you play the Kings, where do you get your relief?”
“Look at those centers. If you’re coming down the middle on us, it won’t matter who it is. There are four centers there where [opposing teams] get no relief against us, [no matter which line is on the ice].”
Noting the lack of consensus regarding who the second overall pick should have been going into the 2020 draft, Yanetti noted that the real question was who was the best player for the Kings to select?
“When we looked at the positive attributes of the players in that group, we’re looking at building a team,” he said. “You’re drafting the best player, but you’re also drafting the best player for how your team is going to play.”
“There’s a little bit of nuance—you always take the best player available, and we do,” he added. “But when you have players who are closely ranked, then the best player becomes relative. You don’t take a defenseman five spots lower than another guy because he fits your team demographic better. But if you have two guys rated in the same tier, or three guys rated in the same tier, or four guys, you pick the guy who best fits the style of play that your team is going to play. That’s what ended up happening with [the Byfield] pick.”
Like most first round draft picks, Byfield is looking to make the Kings opening night roster once the new season begins.
“I’m a pretty confident guy…so I definitely think I could step into the NHL next year,” he said. “But I know that it’s a really big jump from the OHL to the NHL…you’re playing against the best players every night…so it’s going to be very challenging.”
“The LA Kings—I know they have a lot of star power players,” he added. “They were a championship caliber team, as you saw in the past, and I think I can [help] get that team back on track. I think we have a really good team and I can’t wait to join them.”
But is it realistic to think that Byfield could make the jump to the NHL immediately?
Maybe it is. Indeed, Yanetti said that with the extra time he has to prepare for the upcoming season, Byfield’s chances to make the big club’s roster are better than if the new season was to begin at its normal time in October.
“Some guys, who aren’t ready in September, if they had an extra four months of training, might be ready,” he observed. “With the NHL looking at a January 1. 2021 starting date, Byfield has three more months, and he’s already had the month of September, which he normally wouldn’t get. That’s four extra months, and for a kid who’s the youngest player in the draft, that could make a difference.”
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Byfield will be ready for the rigors of the NHL just yet.
“There’s a difference between being good enough to play in the NHL, and being ready to play in the NHL,” Yanetti explained. “Is he good enough? Absolutely. But is he ready to play in the NHL? Now you have to look at a lot of factors. Is playing in the NHL the best thing for him, or should he go back to junior?”
“I would never want to [place limits] on a kid, nor would I want to create unrealistic expectations,” Yanetti elaborated. “The extra four months will make it a lot more feasible for more players to [make the jump to the NHL right away]. He’s talented and good enough to play in the NHL tomorrow. That doesn’t mean that he’s ready to play in the NHL. The Kings are in no rush here. Whatever is best for him will be done. All the things to get him ready are in place.”
To his credit, Byfield understands his situation and doesn’t appear to be the type who would sulk if he doesn’t make the NHL team’s roster right after the draft.
“It would be nice to come back to Sudbury,” he said. “A great team. But the goal is to definitely play in the NHL next year, hopefully step in. If I go back to Sudbury, it’ll definitely give me a little more motivation. Just prove myself a little bit more and hopefully, win the OHL and win the Memorial Cup.”
First Round Notes
The Kings were actively working to trade up in the first round, hoping to nab at least one more player they had targeted in that tier of their list. But there were no takers.
“We really hoped to make two picks in the first round,” Yanetti lamented. “We had a couple of players who we thought might fall a little bit. Our goal was to get one of them.”
“We were trying for three days to put things in place in case things happened,” Yanetti added. “You never want to wait until the draft, so you put things in place, [talking with other teams about potential trades to acquire players that they had targeted in the draft].”
“I would’ve thought there would be at least a little potential [to trade up], but there was zero potential to do anything meaningful. There was never a scenario where we would’ve been able to move anywhere near where we needed to go. Most of our phone calls with other teams never got past the ‘hello’ stage. We had only one opportunity to move, but it was much later than we would’ve needed and it would’ve been too costly.”
NEXT: An in-depth look at subsequent rounds and much more from Mark Yanetti. Look for that over the next few days.
- Going Deep Into the LA Kings 2020 NHL Draft with Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanetti – Part 2
- Going Deep Into the LA Kings 2020 NHL Draft with Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanetti – Part 3
- Going Deep Into the LA Kings 2020 NHL Draft with Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanetti – Part 4
LEAD IMAGE: Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves, shown here during an OHL game against the Oshawa Generals at the Tribute Communities Centre on February 7, 2020, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images.
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