This article was originally published in the Future Watch issue of The Hockey News.
Quinton Byfield knows a thing or two about accuracy and understands that taking your shots when they’re available is the difference between winning and losing.
It’s why, during an off-season in which rolling lockdowns and pandemic-induced restrictions meant free time was spent hunkering down at home, Byfield put in the work to become a sharpshooter of sorts. He learned to hit moving targets and find a tiny opening and deliver with precision. He worked on getting more accurate on the move, delivering strikes from distance and being quicker on the draw in close quarters.
Byfield put in those hours in service of becoming a difference-maker for his squad. He knew it was the difference between standing atop the heap or being sent packing early. And all that effort paid off when the 18-year-old finally got to see those two words that he, like so many of his peers this past summer, endeavored for so long hoping to finally see: “Warzone Victory.”
“Honestly?” Byfield pauses for comedic effect when asked whether winning a round of Call of Duty or scoring his first AHL tally was followed by a bigger celebration. “No, no. Probably the first pro goal,
Not in question, though, is which of the two Byfield is celebrating more often these days. His success on the digital battlefield has been hit and miss – “There are some tough games and some really good games. I’m all over the map,” he laughed – but Byfield exited the back half of March as one of the AHL’s hottest players and its most deadly first-year skater. Beginning with an assist against the Henderson Silver Knights on March 13, Byfield went on a seven-game tear in which he compiled nine points, including goals in five straight games. By the time March was over, Byfield was leading the Ontario Reign in scoring with six goals and 16 points in 21 games, enough to sit alone as the AHL’s third-highest scoring rookie.
As impressive as that is, there’s additional context necessary to explain just how rare a feat Byfield’s production has been. Not since William Nylander in 2014-15 has a player as young as Byfield – one of nearly two dozen under-19 skaters to play in the AHL this season – scored at such a rate across 20-plus games. True, this season has created the perfect storm for Byfield to have such an opportunity. In any other campaign, the transfer agreement between the NHL and CHL clubs would require players like Byfield – under 20 and with fewer than four seasons of CHL service – to be sent back to their respective major-junior teams unless they’re on the NHL roster. But that does little to take the shine off of his stat line.
But don’t for a second take Byfield’s offensive accomplishments to mean he’s anywhere near satisfied. “If you just take a snapshot of his goals and assists and games, you’re content with the ratio,” said Reign coach John Wroblewski. “But I think everybody involved wants to keep pushing him to try to convert even more often. It’d be one thing if he was scoring on every one of his chances. Then you’re going, ‘OK, this is about right.’ But he’s definitely left some opportunities on the table. I think he’ll be the first one to admit it.”
An exasperated “ugh” from Byfield confirms Wroblewski’s suspicion and speaks volumes about Byfield’s desire to be the same offensive game-changer he’s been at every level throughout his career. To hear Byfield tell it, he’s unhappy not only about the games in which he hasn’t scored but those in which he hasn’t scored multiple times. To Wroblewski, that’s an indication of Byfield’s “assassin’s-type mentality,” which is among the traits that set him apart from the rest of his class and led the Kings to select him second overall in the 2020 draft. But Wroblewski, who spent four seasons coaching with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program prior to arriving in Ontario, Calif., said Byfield also strikes an important mental balance, especially for his age. “It’s a fine line between being content with where you’re at when you’re not having success and overreacting and getting too fired up and trying to change things all at once,” Wroblewski said. “He has got a perfect blend of that. If things don’t go his way, he shows up and is ready to work the next day, ready to grow, ready to get better. Very few signs on the outside of being frustrated. He seems to compartmentalize those emotions and be able to let them roll off his back and just go back to work.”
And there is work to be done. Byfield’s physical attributes are obvious. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. That he pairs it with a swiftness belying his frame makes defending him a frightening proposition even for professional defensemen. And he’s only going to get stronger and faster as he exits his teenage years and enters adulthood, which leaves no question that he’s the prototypical power forward in a day and age when players cut from similar cloth are threatening to go the way of the Atlanta Thrashers. But, along the way, the benefits of Byfield’s build have also produced a few tendencies in need of correcting. “He’s survived and thrived with a lot of poke-and-go type of play,” Wroblewski said. “That doesn’t translate to the big leagues here. He’s going through all of that. He’s learning different support routes, different defensive-zone coverages and different mindsets.”
Byfield isn’t blind to his own deficiencies. He echoed Wroblewski’s critique of the one-handed puck play as if coach and player are of one mind. Byfield clearly heeds the advice of the Reign coaching staff, and he also extolls the virtues of the changes he’s made in that regard. Being stronger on his stick has helped him create more for himself and make plays quicker, an all-important skill at the highest levels.
He looks at the improvements he’s made away from the puck in the same light. Going back to his early days in major junior, Byfield noted he wasn’t reliable defensively but put the time in to become a fixture in late-game and shorthanded situations for the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.
“It’s the same thing here,” he added. “I’m trying to adjust defensively as well. Still not having a great year plus-minus-wise, so really trying to work on the defensive game and be the best I can back there. I’m starting to improve, watching as much video as I can, learning some positions, where I should be and getting the structure right. I think that’s what helped me offensively, as well. That’s a big key.”
No one is going to accuse Byfield of failing to put in the work. Hard as it might be to find positives in what has for many been the strangest and most difficult year of their lives, Byfield has used the limited opportunity to enjoy the off-ice aspects of living in southern California to put in as much time as he can at the rink.
And because evening entertainment is predominantly limited to household activities, he’s been a student away from the rink, too. He’s living by his lonesome for the first time in his life, but that allows him to control the remote. Sure, he’ll tune into an evening’s slate of big-league games for the sake of entertainment, watching the likes of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews for sheer enjoyment and to possibly pick up an offensive trick or two.
But the Los Angeles Kings, the Reign’s parent club, are classified as must-see TV in the one-person Byfield household. “We play the same structure, so I watch to try to get those points down,” he said. “Hopefully when I go up there one day, I can be comfortable and be right up to par as fast as I can.”