Quinton Byfield came to play on Tuesday.
Team Canada had very few issues in a 10-0 victory over Switzerland, giving Canada a 3-0 record heading into the big contest on Thursday against Finland. But the big story was the emergence of Byfield, the team's third-line center that was at the center of criticism for his early play in the tournament.
What exactly was the criticism? In the 16-2 opener against Germany, Byfield had just one assist on a line that didn't produce much of the team's firepower. In the grand scheme of things, we're talking about a game that was never close to begin with – the production of a single player in a game with the intensity of a turtle race shouldn't matter.
But it was a loud-talking point on social media and various television and radio programs. Byfield, selected second overall by the Los Angeles Kings this past October, was expected to be an offensive leader but was nowhere to be found in a game where just most of the team's forwards seemed to have a big impact.
That's on top of a slow tournament a year ago in the Czech Republic when Byfield had just one assist in seven games en route to the medal. But, let's be real. He was the youngest player last year at 17. Despite a strong camp, he was buried in the lineup once the Canadians finalized its roster and he never really did much with the opportunities awarded to him. Byfield averaged just 8:41 a night - only Dawson Mercer (7:18) played less on Canada. Byfield didn't even get a shift in the final. He didn't get a ton of chances, but he also wasn't productive when he was on the ice.
But it was hard to expect much else. Sure, he was projected to go high in the draft, but Alexis Lafreniere had just one goal in five games in 2019 as a 17-year-old himself. It didn't look great that Lafreniere became the MVP a year later while Byfield barely saw any ice time, but Lafreniere as a late 2001-born forward had an extra year of major junior under his belt compared to Byfield. Funny enough, Byfield is still the youngest player on Canada, a rare feat to achieve in consecutive years.
Byfield's value extends way past offense. Ahead of the draft, one of the biggest criticisms was that, despite having a 6-foot-4 frame, he rarely used his size to his advantage. How'd he respond? He added 10 pounds and became more involved physically. If you watch back the game against Russia or Slovakia and compare it to his performance a year ago, you can tell he has added an edge to his game. Add in his defensive reliability and attack along the boards and his play away from the puck has really shown improvement over the past 12 months. There might not be a player a Canada that hunts for pucks harder than he does or with the success rate that he has. So even if Byfield isn't putting up points, he has found a way to be effective – even if it's the little things that don't get noticed easily on a television broadcast.
"It started right from the get-go in Red Deer," Tourigny said. "I told the players I was going to be demanding of them. He paid attention to what we asked. We asked him for some adjustments on the defensive side of the puck and he did."
But at the essence of his game, he's used to being a leader on the scoresheet. In Sudbury, he was the main point of offense for both years, and the team struggled to put pucks in the net without him. Any time you put a prospect outside their comfort zone against top competition will be a challenge, no matter how good you are. We saw that with Lafreniere in 2019 and Byfield wasn't exempt.
So it's fair to think his struggles got to him, and it's fair to criticize him, too. He's still a raw prospect at this stage in his development. You can tell there was some frustration at this event last year. When he finally scored one against Switzerland on Tuesday, the camera showed him taking the monkey off his back. It seemed like, finally, he was back to his usual self. But much of the criticism in the media came too early – were people really that down on him after a blowout game that became essentially meaningless after a period of play? The first game of the tournament? After a certain point, there's no more scouting value in a game like that. Even if a team starts getting lazy and makes mistakes, you can't blame them when almost every shot to start a period goes in.
Byfield has looked good over the past two games as he starts to catch back up to what made him an 80-point guy in the OHL. Byfield even said it himself after Tuesday's game that it took some time for him to get comfortable. Maintaining that comfort level as the tournament goes on is the key as Canada advances. Whether or not he sticks with Jakob Pelletier and Jack Quinn or moves up the lineup isn't known just yet, but they sure looked good together, highlighted by Byfield's big night.
"He's really coachable. He's fun to coach," Canadian coach Andre Tourigny said. "He pays attention and wants to do what's right."
"He's a more mature man than last year."
A six-point game in a blowout against a team using its backup might not mean much, but it's finally a reward for a hard-working forward who hasn't had much luck. Like most players on the team, Byfield hadn't played a competitive game before joining Team Canada since March. So when you haven't scored in a while, it's tough. When you look past his ability to put disks in the net, you have to appreciate how well-rounded of a game he's played, especially when, in a bottom-six role, he has not been on the ice for any of Canada's goals against.
It's hard to call his tournament a success without seeing what Byfield can do the rest of the way, but Kings fans – and Canadians alike – should be happy about what they've seen from Byfield when he gets things going. But the golden (medal) question: can he be superb the rest of the way?