Quinton Byfield is closer to Alexis Lafrenière than he is to whoever is at number three.
That has been a sentiment I’ve held for the entirety of the 2019-20 season. Despite the fact that Lafrenière is the clear-cut best player today, the unique potential that Byfield possesses is what makes it a discussion. There is a unique blend of size, speed, and skill that Byfield has that could make him a top-five center in the NHL in the not-too-distant future. He has the ability to absolutely dominate his competition. There is the fact that he is among the youngest draft-eligible prospects in the 2020 draft with an August 19h birthday. Yeah, he’s still 17 years old for almost six more weeks. For reference, Lafrenière turns 19 in October. A massive difference at this stage of their development. Need more convincing? Below is the latest update to his prospect page here on DobberProspects and his shot chart from this season courtesy of InStat Hockey.
Quinton Byfield dealt with injuries a couple of times this season and had his year shortened because of the pandemic but his 1.82 points-per-game finished tied with Cole Perfetti for fifth in the OHL. Only league leader Marco Rossi finished ahead of him among draft-eligible players. He recorded three-plus points in 13 of his 45 contests and reached the five-point mark on two occasions. There were flashes of dominance throughout the season and yet there still seems to be so much left to unearth in Byfield’s game. His combination of size, speed, and skill give him a truly unique package that could make him the best player in the 2020 NHL Draft. Byfield has the ability to be a difference-maker in all areas of the game. Should he be given a proper chance to develop with a smart team and highly attentive development staff, Byfield has the chance to be one of the best centers in the NHL. The Sudbury Wolves star had some struggles this season to be sure but the still 17-year-old is one of the youngest members of the 2020 draft. His production at this stage of his development is special. Having anyone else as your number two, fantasy or otherwise, may look like a silly decision in a couple of years’ time.
The Stars Align
Now to why we’re here. Why I feel that Byfield going first overall makes more sense now than ever has a multifaceted explanation. It begins with what we’ve already covered. The ceiling for the Sudbury Wolves center is sky-high. There is a world where Byfield could be talked about with the likes of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel as players who are some of the best in the world and not named Connor McDavid. There is no guarantee that he is able to get to that level but the potential is there. If he does not get to that level, he likely winds up having a similar impact to Ryan Getzlaf or Mark Scheifele.
The second factor is that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL is likely not to start their 2020-21 (just 2021?) season until December or January. The CHL is tentatively planning on starting their seasons at the beginning of October. This would mean that Byfield likely gets in a few games ahead of the 2020 draft. If there is any delay or temporary setbacks in the NHL’s return to play, it could mean Byfield gets a month or more of games in. If he comes out of the gates and starts putting up insane totals the way he and Lafrenière did at the start of this past season, the ‘Placeholder Team’ could very well decide that Byfield’s ceiling is worth taking the extra risk on.
While that is a scenario where Byfield can help himself, the true advantage of the October Draft/January NHL season is that there is all that extra time. The fact of the matter is that a scouts job isn’t to find you the best player today, it’s to find you the best player five years from now when they are at their most productive. There is a belief that first overall picks should play day-one and it been a practice that hasn’t always worked. Look no further than last year’s first overall pick in Jack Hughes. He struggled to adapt and realistically could have used another year of development. Steven Stamkos had an underwhelming rookie year and then exploded for 95 points in year two. Joe Thornton had seven (yes, 7) points as an 18-year-old and then scored over 100 multiple times in his career including a 125-point season to win the Hart Trophy. The jump isn’t always easy or clean and it certainly doesn’t need to happen year one.
Recently, DobberProspects Managing Editor Cam Robinson released his “Final” 2020 Draft Rankings, and yet again, he was the only man in the business bold enough to put Byfield ahead of Lafrenière atop his rankings. While bold, it’s not crazy. He cites the fact that Byfield has the insanely high ceiling and that if he hits it, he could be the smartest guy in the room. If he misses, it could be a bit of egg on his face. He explains it more in this radio hit with Sportsnet 650. Upon seeing this, Jack Han (former Hockey Ops with the Toronto Maple Leafs and assistant coach with the Marlies) wrote a bit about Byfield and how a team should go about developing him.
Excerpt From Jack Han’s Hockey Tactics Newsletter
The excerpt above is a tightly laid out plan for how and when Byfield should be worked onto his NHL team. He notes that there is going to be a heavy and focused effort put into working with Byfield to develop his skills even further and skate with him on a regular basis. The other note of emphasis is that you allow his play and development to tell you when he should be playing in the NHL, not the fact that he was a top-three (or first overall) draft pick. With the next NHL season being pushed back, a team would be forced into starting the young star in junior hockey another year for another year.
The ‘Placeholder’ Effect
This is the real key to the entire premise of Byfield being the right choice at first overall. The team that is going to be drafting first overall is a borderline playoff team at worst and a Stanley Cup contender at best. The reality is that none of these teams should have this pick. The NHL’s plan was for the placeholders, who represent the eight teams that will eventually lose out in the NHL’s qualifying round, to be involved in the lottery. The only problem is that because they were all essentially grouped together as ‘Placeholder’ with veiled designations of Teams A through H. The fact of the matter is that the group of placeholder teams had a combined 24.5% chance of picking first. Detroit had an 18.5% chance as a team who won 17 games out of 71 and were 23 points back of Ottawa for second-worst.
The reason that this is important is that for many of the teams that could have a shot at drafting first overall, they reasonably expected to have to wait for their top pick. They have the luxury of allowing Byfield the extra time to develop because they aren’t in a rush to put an 18-year-old in their lineup. This doesn’t apply to every team in the play-in rounds. There are teams that would certainly find the benefit of adding a player like Lafrenière to their lineup. Let’s take a look at if and why the teams would decide to take the chance on Byfield’s sky-high potential.
No Chance of Taking Byfield
Montreal Canadiens (vs. Pittsburgh in play-in)
No chance. This is the easiest “No” of the group because of the chance of having a French-Canadian star in Montreal. Lafrenière would be the clear choice if Montreal wins the Phase 2 Lottery. There isn’t really much else to say here.
New York Islanders (vs. Florida in play-in)
The Isles likely go with Lafrenière because Lou Lamoriello is old and old-school. One thing that can’t be denied when it comes to Lou is that late in his career, he’s begun to stop caring about the team in five years because he won’t be there. Lou isn’t going to make a long-term gamble because he isn’t there long-term.
Chicago Blackhawks (vs. Edmonton in play-in)
The Blackhawks have been trying to extend their competitive window year-to-year it seems, not always successfully. The team doesn’t really seem to want to embrace a rebuild so adding Lafrenière to the fold right away will be key for them.
Vancouver Canucks (vs. Minnesota in play-in)
Vancouver seems to be on the precipise of taking the next step but they have a few tough contracts that may cost them a bit to get rid of. Another solution? Instantly adding the top-six winger in Lafrenière could really go a long way. Their developmental system has a spotty history as well so Byfield may not be worth the risk in that regard.
Florida Panthers (vs. New York Islanders in play-in)
Probably not. Florida probably plays it safe and doesn’t need to really find a top-line center. They are an underrated team but are still a fringe team. They could use the immediate help that Lafrenière could bring next year.
Columbus Blue Jackets (vs. Toronto in play-in)
This one is a bit tougher. They probably lean to the side of safety and take Lafrenière because the only time they’ve had a bit of a rough history in the draft historically. They’ve done a good job with limited resources lately but the opportunity to add a stud like Lafrenière should be top of mind if they win the pick.
Arizona Coyotes (vs. Nashville in play-in)
The Coyotes have been in the cellar seemingly forever. Adding a player with the skill and immediate readiness in Lafrenière would make all the sense in the world. This is more about not wanting to take the risk by a perennial basement dweller looking like they might be ready to take a step.
Maybe, They Consider It
New York Rangers (vs. Carolina in play-in)
Yes. Maybe no. If they can figure out what is going on with their development system, then this would be a risk I would take. They have had a bit of Draft Lottery luck recently and with their rebuild going as well as they could have hoped, the risk of taking Byfield could be worth it. Lafrenière would obviously make an instant impact but if they decide that they need that possible franchise center long-term, an area where they seem to be a bit lacking.
Carolina Hurricanes (vs. New York Rangers in play-in)
The Hurricanes have been a very strong drafting team recently. They have a decent prospect pool and on the surface, adding Lafrenière would make a ton of sense. They don’t seem to be afraid of taking risks though. Taking the risk to pair Byfield with Aho down the middle would allow them to take their future to the next level.
Nashville Predators (vs. Arizona in play-in)
Although extending their window with Lafrenière is the obvious choice, they are clearly missing the one thing they’ve tried to acquire for years. A number one center. It wasn’t Johansen. It wasn’t Turris. It wasn’t Duchene. It could be Quinton Byfield.
Winnipeg Jets (vs. Calgary in play-in)
In some ways this makes sense and others it just doesn’t. They almost went on the no chance list but they have been trying to add a center behind Scheifele and Byfield could slot in ahead of him if all things work out. Worst case? He slots in behind him and they have a solid one-two punch. It’s doubtful but it can be almost justified.
Calgary Flames (vs. Winnipeg in play-in)
The Flames are in a weird spot. They have a good core but there are key pieces that are aging out (Giordano) and others have been questioned because they haven’t done anything in the playoffs (Monahan, Gaudreau). It may be time to signal a full-on change and selecting Byfield would signal that they are willing to wait on another run and gives them a chance to find a new top-line center.
Minnesota Wild (vs. Vancouver in play-in)
They have their top-line winger coming in with Kaprizov making it known that he wants to come over to the NHL. Giving him a year to adjust to the NHL while Byfield finishes developing in junior hockey next year could be good for both players. The following year, unleash the most dangerous offensive duo that the Wild may have ever iced.
The Risk Could Make Sense
Toronto Maple Leafs (vs. Columbus in play-in)
Yes. Do it. This is where it gets interesting. A team like Toronto could certainly use the addition of Lafrenière and get the young, cheap talent immediately in their lineup giving them a chance to trade a forward for defensive help (NOT NYLANDER, his contract is as wonderful as his smile. Don’t @ me). Do you know what would be more fun? Kyle Dubas going all-in on offense and the future. Matthews-Tavares is one of the best one-two punches in the NHL down the middle. They have no reason to rush Byfield. They have the time to allow him to develop, especially considering that if they don’t win the lottery, they won’t even have this pick. This would be a pick about ensuring that the Leafs are competitive for years to come and pairing the 22-year-old Matthews with Byfield for the next decade.
The Leafs have shown to have an impressive development staff. They meet all of the criteria that we covered above. They give themselves the opportunity to work with Byfield and if any team is going to institute the plan that Jack Han outlined above, it’s going to be Dubas and the Leafs. Toronto’s young General Manager has always expressed an interest in keeping an eye on the future, despite his team coming into their own over the last couple of years since the addition of John Tavares. If all goes well, the Leafs could have three of the top-15 centers in the NHL as Byfield comes into his own and Tavares slows down. The 1-2-3 punch that could exist in Toronto would be terrifying for opponents and with Byfield coming in cheap for his first few years, the Leafs could truly maximize their window.
Pittsburgh Penguins (vs. Montreal in play-in)
Very similar situation to Toronto just later into the window of their top-two centers. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still elite centers and give the Penguins a chance to win every night. They seem to unearth gems to play along those stud pivots all of the time so thinking that they could follow a development plan for Byfield is more than reasonable. Although picking Lafrenière makes a lot of sense in terms of immediately helping the two future Hockey Hall of Famers win another Cup, Byfield gives the Penguins a chance, not unlike Toronto, to extend their window beyond the now.
Allowing the Sudbury Wolves center to learn from one of the best players of all-time in Sidney Crosby and the player who Byfield could project to be in Malkin, could be the perfect situation. This could even be the one situation where Byfield doesn’t need another year in the OHL. Clearly slotting into the third line center role and allowing the big boys in the top-six to pull the big defensive pairs on opposing teams, Byfield could be allowed to thrive as he learns on the fly. Over the next half-decade, Byfield could work his way up the depth chart as the elder statesmen begin to fade in their mid-30’s. Byfield could be the key building block in sustaining Pittsburgh as one of the model franchises in the NHL.
Edmonton Oilers (vs. Chicago in play-in)
They have the best player in the world and the NHL’s leading scorer, and they are two separate players. The only problem is that despite the fact that they are both centers, they play on the same line for the majority of the time. With the club seemingly unwilling to separate Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, they could add Byfield to slot in behind them. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s contract is up after next season and the club will be strapped for cash a bit. Byfield may not be ready to take over the second-line center role right away but he could slot in behind McDavid in a sheltered role. The team would likely need to find a short term stop gap but it isn’t a massive task that needs to be done.
The Edmonton situation is unique because it makes the least sense of the three in this category. The Oilers really don’t have a great player development history. They also seem to feel comfortable rushing rookies, a situation that wouldn’t be great for Byfield. The problem is that adding Lafrenière to that top-line might be overkill as there might not be enough puck to go around. Adding Byfield to drive the second line long term gives Edmonton one of the best young center pairs in the NHL and they have Draisaitl who could slot in down the middle in an emergency.
Fantasy or Reality
The reality of the situation is that Lafrenière is almost certainly going to be the first player taken in the 2020 NHL Draft. While there has been a bit of drama surrounding Byfield’s position at second overall with some love going Tim Stützle‘s way. The flash and pizzaz that the young German plays with has risen his stock greatly over the course of the year. The issue is that his ceiling isn’t what Byfield’s ceiling is. Stützle also profiles as a winger at the next level. Byfield’s floor is also a bit over-exaggerated in terms of how “bad” he could be. Byfield will be a top-six center. There should be little doubt about that. His ceiling is that of a top-five center in the NHL.
This is a bit of a fantasy theory and likely won’t happen in October when the draft is tentatively scheduled. Lafrenière is the best player today and that isn’t much of a question. Byfield is a real threat to being the best player from this class in five years. Even if Toronto, Pittsburgh or Edmonton get the pick, it’s still expected that Lafrenière is their choice. The promise of the high-floor, high-ceiling that the near-consensus number one ranked player has is what makes him near-consensus. Byfield would be a risk at number one because, despite the fact that his ceiling is a bit higher, his floor is also a bit lower which has given some teams and scouts some hesitation. Despite this being a fantasy situation, the reality is that Byfield is closer to Lafrenière than he is to third. That’s a fact.
Thank you for joining me for my latest thought experiment on the 2020 NHL Draft, be sure to check out the Jake Sanderson and Jamie Drysdale Deep Dives. Shot chart and statistics courtesy of InStat Hockey, a top of the line video and scouting platform. For more from InStat, follow them on Twitter. For more on prospects and the NHL Draft, you can follow Tony Ferrari on Twitter.
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