If your only exposure to prospects is watching the World Junior Championship, you probably think Quinton Byfield is a pretty lousy player.
One assist in seven games last year. Very few games where he was noticeable. A few untimely penalties. When all was said and done, Byfield had one of the quietest tournaments among NHL draft prospects despite an electrifying training camp in Oakville.
Scouts, though, were unfazed. You don't judge a prospect's worth on a two-week tournament, especially when the player in question was the youngest forward on the team. Byfield, a natural center, shifted to the wing and never found his groove in unfamiliar shutdown territory. But when he was back home in Sudbury, he was nearly unstoppable.
Through 45 games as an OHL sophomore, Byfield had 32 goals and 82 points for a Sudbury team that struggled to produce without him. In the seven games in which Byfield failed to register a point, the Wolves went 1-5-1. In the seven games that Byfield missed during the World Junior Championship, the Wolves went 1-6-0.
So it's safe to say that, a year later, Byfield should be an integral part of Canada's attempt at winning consecutive gold medals.
Byfield, selected second overall by the Los Angeles Kings in October, is one of a handful of members on the Canadian roster that likely would have seen NHL duty by now in a normal year. Chicago's Kirby Dach, Anaheim's Jamie Drysdale, Colorado's Bowen Byram and Buffalo's Dylan Cozens, to name a few, all looked like contenders to make the NHL right away (in Dach's case, as a sophomore). With the NHL on pause, this will instead be the first real game action any of them have had, so the selection camp in Red Deer has been vital to getting them up to speed.
As for the camp itself this year, Byfield doesn't feel any different despite having a go-around last winter.
"I wouldn't say there is less pressure," Byfield said. "I think there's always pressure. That's what you want as a hockey player. You have to use that to your advantage.
"Nothing's really given to you, you have to work for it."
Unlike Kirby Dach, who would return to the Chicago Blackhawks if asked to join training camp prior to the end of the tournament, Byfield is in it for the long run. Byfield said he had chats with Kings' GM Rob Blake about staying in camp regardless of what happens with the NHL and challenge for a second gold medal. Whether that means the Kings view him as having a key role with the NHL club once the season begins is yet to be seen, but being on a squad with a chance to win a tournament after sitting out close to a year of action seems to be the best course of action.
“Today he was a man out there," head coach Andre Tourigny said following Byfield's delayed start to camp while awaiting a COVID-19 result. "I really liked his intensity, I liked the way he worked. When you have three days of teaching and you miss two of them, you’re light on the structure.
“Am I worried about that? Not at all. Give him a few days. He’ll catch up. It’s not a problem for Q. I like the way he skates. I like the way he handles the puck, his presence, his one-on-one, the way he can close quickly defensively on his man. You could see a big improvement.”
Confidence has never been an issue for Byfield - from minor hockey to junior, his teams have relied on his leadership to guide them through any challenge. And as a returning player, Byfield is the type of player the Canadians will indeed rely on.
"Last year was a good experience," Byfield said. "Hopefully, me, along with a couple of the other guys, can bring the veteran presence and pass it on to the younger guys."
Of course, that would require the Canadians to give Byfield a bigger shot in the lineup other than as a bottom-line forward like he was a year ago. While remaining humble, it's still clear that being someone the team can rely on is important to Byfield.
"I'm not saying I'm expecting a bigger role, you have to earn it here," Byfield said. "Just trying to get back on the ice and earn that role. I definitely would want a bigger role but you take any role that you're given and just go with that and work your way up."
One of the biggest knocks on Byfield's game is that despite his big frame of 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, he doesn't use his size enough to his advantage, allowing smaller players to push him around at times. Byfield said he's grown added some mass during the off-season and his overall strength is something he's worked on over the past few months.
"I think I got quite a bit stronger, gained some weight (10 pounds)," Byfield said. "I'm trying to be heavier on pucks and use my size to my advantage."
So far, it's working out.
"Byfield just stepped out here and has been a man against boys," goaltender Tristan Lennox said. "His shot is just unbelievable."
"That release, that's an NHL release, no doubt about it," goaltender Taylor Gauthier added.
With so many prospects on the outside looking in with nowhere to go, Byfield has an opportunity to continue to raise his stock before looking to make the jump to the NHL full-time. If there's no contact in the OHL this season, there's nothing left for him to do in Sudbury and the focus will switch to his search for a full-time role in the NHL.
But for now, his mind is focused on winning in Alberta, and bringing gold back to his nation for the second time in a row. But this time, Byfield wants to be a bigger contributor, and all signs point towards the calm, motivated star becoming just that.