Quinton Byfield is a bowtie kind of guy. Anytime you see him, either in pictures or in person, dressed in his Sunday best, he’s sporting a horizontal rather than vertical adornment around his neck. It’s kind of his signature look. That, and the fact that the Sudbury Wolves 16-year-old center is a truly special talent, kind of sets him apart.
This will not come as news to people who have watched Byfield play this season. The kid is going to tear it up in the Ontario League in his draft year next season and will then leave junior hockey, never to return. In that sense, the Wolves should get as much out of him until then and Canada’s World Junior team might want to make the most of the one and only tournament he’ll play. But he’s still got to get through this spring’s OHL playoffs and if the first-round sample size is any indication, he’s far from done. The surprising Wolves have jumped out into a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Mississauga Steelheads and Byfield sits second in OHL playoff scoring with three goals and six points after posting point-per-game totals during the regular season.
The impressive thing about Byfield is there has really been no adjustment period. He had nine points in five pre-season games, added 29 goals and 61 points in 64 regular season games and has been his team’s best forward in the playoffs.
“Quinton’s game has elevated from the start of the year to now,” said Wolves coach Cory Stillman. “A kid who has 60 points in the regular season is still a good season and now in the playoffs he’s our go-to guy just because he’s playing the right way in a 200-foot game.”
This was not supposed to happen so quickly for the Wolves, who took Byfield with the first overall pick after finishing last in the OHL last season. The Wolves expected to be better, which should not have been very difficult, but finishing with 43 wins, four short of the franchise record, was nothing anyone could foresee. But two things happened in the off-season that have changed the complexion of this franchise. The first was that Byfield agreed wholeheartedly to report and bought into the Wolves’ rebuilding efforts and the second was they selected Buffalo Sabres goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen third overall in the import draft and convinced him to eschew pro hockey in Finland to play major junior. “The two things that happened was we got Quinton and we added Ukko-Pekka, whom I think is the best 19-year-old goalie in the world,” Stillman said. “I really think that strongly of him. We went through a learning phase last year and it’s tough being in last place, but when you change culture people will want to start to come.”
When it was suggested to Stillman that Byfield will be a dominant player next season, he laughed and shook his head. “He can control a game now, at 16, at both ends,” Stillman said. “He can pass and shoot and he makes people around him better.”
It’s not as though this is entirely unexpected. Byfield was by far the best prospect for the OHL draft, but the thing is that the best prospect often is not the one who goes first overall, particularly when an organization with a checkered past like the Wolves have is doing the picking. But Byfield made it clear from the start that he was prepared to be a part of things with an organization that has struggled mightily and wanted to be part of the solution. Funny thing is, he might have to do that all over again at the NHL when he’s drafted in 2020.
Byfield agrees that he had a lot of work to do without the puck. That tends to happen when you’re as good as Byfield growing up and you happen to have the puck all the time. But he has been worked in well, taking on increased roles with penalty killing and being out on the ice late in games when the Wolves are protecting a lead.
“Whether you’re up one or down one, you always want to be in those situations,” Byfield said. “So I had to really turn my game around. At the beginning of the year, I was just doing circles in the defensive zone, but now I’m stopping on the puck and finishing my checks and Cory has noticed that and he trusts me in those situations now. And I just love doing that.”
There is certainly a far better feel around this team than there has been for a long time, in large part due to Byfield and Luukkonen. But there have been other factors as well. The Wolves acquired Calgary Flames prospect Adam Ruzicka at the trade deadline and that has helped their offense. Blake Murray, who scored 30 goals in the regular season, will likely go in the second or third round of this year’s draft. And defenseman Isaak Phillips, who played tournament games for the Jamaican national team, is a late-2001 birthday who will also be available for the 2020 draft.
“My linemates have really helped me,” Byfield said after the Wolves beat the Steelheads 5-3 Sunday night to take their 3-0 lead. “Murray gave me a tap-in tonight. It was a lovely pass. And (the previous night teammate Nolan) Hutcheson sent me a beautiful breakaway pass. I’m getting all the help in the world right now.”