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After taking the long road – literally – to Canada's camp, Byfield could be on track for spot on WJC roster

Quinton Byfield is simply one of the best junior players in the world right now, but is that enough to secure a spot on Canada's World Junior Championship team?
Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

OAKVILLE, ONT. – Quinton Byfield's inclusion on Canada's World Junior selection camp roster was a no-brainer. But physically getting to camp? That's a different story.

Byfield was supposed to arrive in Oakville midday Monday, making the trip from Sudbury, where he plays with the OHL's Wolves, to Toronto's Pearson International Airport. From there, he was supposed to shoot over to Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in time for Canada's first practice, which was slated for 5:45 p.m. But as one hour turned into the next, and Byfield found himself sitting inside the Greater Sudbury Airport trying to keep himself entertained. "I just listened to music, looking outside...just hoping for the plane to take off," Byfield said Tuesday.

But it didn't, and when the flight was eventually cancelled due to severe weather, Byfield had to turn to Plan B: his billet family drove him the four hours south to Oakville. By the time Byfield arrived, it was 10 p.m., or roughly four hours after Canada's camp opened up.

The important thing, though, is that he made it, and his first skate with the team was impressive, to say the least. Sure, it was just a practice, but depending on who you talked to, he was Canada's most active and engaged forward. With the spotlight on Byfield with projected top 2020 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere sidelined with what Canadian GM Mark Hunter is calling a "day-to-day issue," the projected second-overall pick didn't disappoint. Skating alongside Dylan Cozens and Nolan Foote, Byfield displayed his dominance with the puck and, despite being among the three youngest players on the team, outmuscled older opposition.

"He's strong on the puck...he's got it all," said Dallas Stars prospect and camp invitee Ty Dellandrea. "It's hard to play against the guy. He's so tall, uses his body well, but he can finish and has (good) hands. To be that big, to be sneaky and find ways to get to the net, it's incredible."

Dellandrea isn't the only veteran Byfield impressed. Those who have felt the wrath of the major junior star also praised his performance and ability. "He kind of gets lost in the offensive zone and somehow gets the puck and it's in the back of the net," said goaltender Hunter Jones, a Minnesota Wild prospect. "He's here for a reason and we're very fortunate to have him."

How exactly does a 6-foot-4 monster evade opponents in the attacking zone? "I honestly have no clue," Jones said. "He just finds a way. That makes it more challenging for me, having to keep my head on a swivel and figure out where he is on the ice."

Byfield entered camp second in OHL scoring, trailing veteran Connor McMichael (59) by two points through 30 games. And Byfield is doing it without a stout scoring group around him. While the Wolves are first in the OHL's Central Division, Byfield leads the team in goals (22) and assists (35) and his 57 points are 19 more than David Levin's second-best 38 points in Sudbury. Byfield's 1.90 points-per-game average also smashes Cole Perfetti's 1.55 among the OHL's U-18 players and puts Byfield seventh in a single season for first-year draft-eligible players in the OHL since 2000. A quick comparison: Connor McDavid's spectacular draft season saw him finish with 120 points and a 2.55 points-per-game average, but his teammates included Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat around him. Byfield doesn't have that type of support in Sudbury.

Despite his OHL dominance, he's not a sure bet to make Canada's World Junior Championship roster. Of the 17 forwards at Canada's camp, 13 are centers, including Byfield. He didn't look out of place on the wing with Cozens and Foote, but Canada rarely dips into the pool of draft-eligible skaters or brings underaged forwards to the tournament. Byfield – and Lafreniere – could be the exception.

"He's good enough to play an integral role for Canada, 100 percent," an OHL scout said. "Watching him out there, he was the most dominant skater on the ice. Nobody could take the puck off of him. If he can dominate major junior, there's no reason why he can't do it in the Czech Republic with the talent around him."

What happens next is the real question. The coaching staff will give him opportunities – two exhibition games against U Sports Selects and a split-squad scrimmage – to prove himself by the time camp closes Thursday. He had some hiccups getting to Oakville, but by the time Friday rolls around, he might not have to worry too much about the weather in Sudbury come the holidays. He could be off to the Czech Republic for the world juniors instead.

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