There was no shortage of drama in the first round of the 2020 draft, with Columbus taking little-known Russian Yegor Chinakhov and Washington getting a potential steal in Hendrix Lapierre, but the first fork in the road came very early.
The whole world knew the New York Rangers would select left winger Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick overall, but the Los Angeles Kings had a real decision on their hands between center Quinton Byfield and German forward Tim Stuetzle. Ultimately, they went with Byfield, the massive pivot from the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.
The Toronto-area product was highly touted thanks to his ideal combination of size, speed and skill and while he is still growing, the sky-high potential in him is clear.
“Obviously size comes into play,” said Kings GM Rob Blake. “We spoke with Quinton last week, he was measured at 6-foot-4 and a half during the season and now he’s pushing 6-foot-5. The effects he would have on a game; all those things come into play. Physically, he has the ability to step in and play with his size and skating ability.”
Blake did caution, however, that more goes into it than just that: the pandemic is already playing havoc with the 2020-21 schedule in North America and the Kings will have to do the calculus on the NHL and OHL slates, plus the world juniors – where Byfield could win back-to-back gold medals with Canada after playing a supporting role as a 17-year-old this past season.
The biracial son of a Jamaican immigrant dad and a white mom, Byfield becomes the highest-drafted Black player in the history of the NHL and while it’s entirely coincidental, this has certainly been a year where hockey has become much more aware of diversity and racism.
“It definitely means a lot to me,” Byfield said. “Being in the record books for anything is special. It just shows that there’s a lot of opportunity for everyone in the world; you can play any sport and be successful in it. A lot of the NHL guys have started (the advocacy) off and really moved it in a good direction, getting a lot of exposure. I’m definitely excited to help out and spread as much awareness as I can.”
The big question on the ice revolves around how soon Byfield can earn himself a Kings sweater. As one of the younger players in the draft – he just turned 18 on Aug. 19 – Byfield doesn’t have to be rushed, but his size and talent make him a pretty tempting option to go straight from the draft to the NHL – a common path for someone taken so high. Blake said the Kings don’t want to force someone into their lineup and that’s the right call, but the kid is going to do his best to earn a spot nonetheless.
“I’m a pretty confident guy,” Byfield said. “I definitely think I can step into the NHL next year, but I know it’s a really big jump from the OHL. It will be challenging, but my whole off-season, I’m working with pros to help translate my game easier.”
Now, he joins an organization that, despite a cratering in the standings, still boasts a very talented two-way center in veteran and captain Anze Kopitar. Byfield has already been able to round out his game in Sudbury under the tutelage of coach and former NHLer Cory Stillman, but the idea of the teenager learning from a big-framed Selke Trophy winner in Los Angeles seems like a perfect fit.
No draft class has ever had to wait so long for the names to be announced as the 2020 kids, but 31 of them now have homes and the magic was still there.
“I don’t get too nervous,” Byfield said. “But I was pretty nervous and really excited for this moment. To realize it finally happened and to celebrate it with my family is something super-special.”
And now, the Kings and Byfield will get to work on ensuring the future is even more special in Los Angeles.