A Development Plan for Quinton Byfield

How to give a unique prospect the best chance for success

While Quinton Byfield is for the most part a consensus second-overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, prospect writer Cam Robinson made the brave and unusual decision to slot Byfield ahead of Alexis Lafreniere in his final 2020 rankings on DobberProspects.

Here is an excerpt of his article:

Cam and I seem to be in agreement that Lafreniere is the better player today. The way in which he plays the game can immediately translate to the NHL and his terrific skill set will allow him to play the same style effectively against the best in the world.

Byfield’s case is different.

Beginning with the end in mind

To paraphrase the concept from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to first understand what we are looking to get out of Byfield as an NHLer. By elaborating on our expectations and laying out the ideal outcome of his development process, we’ll have a better idea of what to prioritize.

Byfield’s best-case scenario in the NHL:

1) Plays center

2) Is a plus-value contributor both special teams

3) Challenges for 20 minutes of ice time or more per game

4) Scores at at a point-per-game pace once his game is at maturity

If we were to throw Byfield into the fire at the start of the 2020-21 season, I anticipate that he will fail on all four counts.

Show me how you move; tell me who you are

Above are Byfield’s first two shifts against the Niagara Ice Dogs on February 28, 2020 (video via InStat).

The sequences are fairly representative of Byfield’s overall game - his exceptional acceleration, strength and reach are on display, and he looks to be a factor all over the ice by hounding the puck aggressively.

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(Image: Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

But once he gets a first touch on the puck, Byfield becomes his own worst enemy. His default skating stride is so hunched over that he needs to quickly reset his posture or risk losing the puck.

(Image: NHL.com)

Evgeni Malkin is also a relatively hunched-over skater. But the Russian’s posture is more vertical, allowing him to keep his chin up and to go from free skating to puck handling with a minimum of fuss.

Malkin’s shoulders are roughly in line with his knees, while Byfield’s shoulders are way in front, preventing him from rotation on-axis and shift laterally on his first touch.

Byfield’s postural issue flares up in other aspects of the game. Because his center of gravity is way forward, he has trouble loading his ankles and staying low through sharp turns. When he decides to cut back to shake off a defender, he straightens his legs, then quickly sinks his pelvis to dig into the ice and change direction. This is sub-optimal because an NHL caliber defenseman can either push him off the puck as he lifts his body or catch up to him and get a stick on the puck when he slows to a near-standstill in the middle of his turn.

The huge variability in his posture throughout a possession might even have positional implications. Give Byfield a quick pass on his backhand low in the defensive zone and see what happens: he stiffens up, his feet get stuck and he bobbles the puck. Hardly ideal for a center who is counted on to be flawless under pressure on breakouts.

Byfield’s worst-case scenario in the NHL:

1) Plays left wing

2) Is a middle-six forechecking specialist

3) Plays 10-14 minutes per game, mostly in a shutdown and PK role

4) Scores less than 30 points a year

What I’m describing above is still a tremendously valuable player. But it would a far cry from what Byfield’s capable of.

Any NHL coach can do a job of channeling Byfield’s exceptional athleticism and hunger into hunting for loose pucks, taking the body and killing the opposing team’s offensive sequences.

But it will take some doing to help Byfield use his skills to create as opposed to destroy.

Embrace the chaos

In The Art of Learning, chess prodigy and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin describes a particular challenge in his journey toward excellence:

Waitzkin was never quite able to reconcile Dvoretsky and Razuvaev’s opposing views through the medium of chess. He was an attacking, daring, creative player who loved chaos and relished the process of finding solutions while his opponents sat stumped. But he was coached to play a structured, patient and prophylactic game that wasn’t his. The outcome was predetermined. While Waitzkin was one of the best young players in the world, he never reached his potential as a senior and left chess to pursue an entirely different discipline.

Byfield is similar in the sense that he still plays a raw, instinctive, major-junior style of hockey as opposed to the fast but intensely structured version of the sport we see at the NHL level. He is at his best capitalizing on broken plays and sniffing for offense in the grey areas of the play rather than confined to a spot and told to wait his turn.

For him to be a star the game should flow freely like rapids. This is against the instincts of NHL coaches who seek to control the ebb and flow of the game and remove unexpected elements in the name of consistency.

Technically Byfield will need to change his game. But tactically he should be given a chance to change the game.

The Plan

Here what I suggest:

  • Byfield plays the entire next season in the OHL, aiming to be the best player on the best team in the country.

  • Whichever NHL team drafts him hires an player development analyst to break down every game and a player development coach to skate with him every week.

  • Byfield does not play an NHL game until his technical mastery matches that of Malkin at age 20, his first year in Pittsburgh (85 points, Rookie of the Year).

  • In his first NHL season his KPI is the number of possessions (touches) per 60 minutes of ice time - any defensive shortcomings will only be evaluated through the prism of “is he getting enough pucks?”

After that the rest will take care of itself.

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