April 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Could Quinton Byfield make NHL debut with Kings soon?

When the Kings selected Quinton Byfield with the second overall pick in the NHL draft in October, few planned to see him in their opening night lineup.

When the 18-year-old center arrived in Los Angeles for the first time Wednesday, flying in via private charter directly from the World Junior Championship in Edmonton, Canada, to start a required quarantine process, it wasn’t clear whether he’d even be able to begin practicing before the Kings’ season opener Thursday night.

But Monday, he and two prospects who had participated in the world junior championship, defenseman Tobias Bjornfot and winger Arthur Kaliyev, joined the Kings for the first time this preseason. And with the team working through a wave of sudden player absences in the final week of training camp, there’s a chance Byfield’s NHL debut could be coming sooner than expected.

Byfield centered the team’s fourth line in practice, compensating for one of the vacancies created by the announcement Saturday that a group of Kings players are currently “unfit to participate” for undisclosed — but possibly coronavirus-related — reasons.

The four “unfit” NHL players — center Gabriel Vilardi, defensemen Sean Walker and Kurtis MacDermid, and goalie Cal Petersen — were still missing during practice Monday. Winger Martin Frk also was unable to participate after suffering a lower-body injury in an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday.

With the regular season three days away — and opening night 23-man rosters and four-to-six player taxi squads due to the league by Tuesday night — the team’s lineup is “in flux right now,” coach Todd McLellan said.

He added, “Once we determine who’s available to us — and that may not even happen until Thursday — then we’ll pick the lineup for Day 1.”

Count Byfield among those seemingly in the mix if there remain holes to fill.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Byfield said. “Everything’s kind of up in the air, you don’t know what’s going on with anything. So you’ve gotta just be prepared for whatever situation you’re put in.”

McLellan did his best to avoid roster speculation questions during a videoconference call Monday. While he confirmed Frk is likely out (the team said he is “week to week”), the status of the “unfit” players remains a major question mark ahead of a pandemic-shortened 56-game season that likely will include many similar unexpected and unspecified player absences.

“I’m not going to get overly involved in the [number of] days [players might be absent] and the testing and all that type of stuff,” McLellan said. “I’m going to worry about what we’re doing on the ice and have experts come and tell me on a daily basis, ‘This guy’s available, this guy isn’t.’ I would probably give you the wrong information if I began to guess.”

The Kings can manage in the short term without Petersen in net. Longtime starter Jonathan Quick has been a full participant throughout camp and newly signed veteran Troy Grosenick can fill in as backup if needed.

If MacDermid and Walker, who had been together on the third defensemen pairing during camp, remain sidelined, replacement options still in camp include: 29-year-old veteran Mark Alt, a nine-year minor leaguer who has played 18 career NHL games; 22-year-old prospect Kale Clague, who played three NHL games last year and played alongside Alt on the third pairing Monday; Bjornfot, a 19-year-old who made the team out of training camp last year and played three NHL games, and Austin Strand, a 23-year-old former undrafted free agent.

“We feel comfortable about all of them,” McLellan said.

How the team might compensate for any potential absence of Vilardi, however, is less clear.

In addition to Byfield, Lias Andersson (the former No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 draft whom the Kings acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers) and Jaret Anderson-Dolan (the team’s second-round pick in 2017 who has played nine NHL games over the last two seasons) could be in the mix.

Of that trio, Anderson-Dolan has the most familiarity playing McLellan’s system, having spent most of last season learning it with the club’s minor league Reign affiliate. Andersson has the most experience playing in the NHL after collecting nine points in 66 games during his three years with the Rangers. Byfield has perhaps the most future upside but also the most to learn.

“It might be unfair to them or us to throw them in right away,” McLellan said when asked generally of Byfield, Bjornfot and Kaliyev (center Alex Turcotte also came to Los Angeles after the world junior championship but is week to week with a lower-body injury).

“Give them a few more skates and then see where we go,” McLellan added.

Regardless of how soon Byfield’s debut comes, it still appears unlikely he’ll play in more than six NHL games this season in order to save a year on his entry-level contract. If he isn’t in the Kings lineup, he still could be on their taxi squad or join the Reign until his junior team in the Ontario Hockey League begins its currently delayed season.

But given the circumstances, the fact he’s in camp and competing for a spot at all is a notable surprise, the result of his promising development but also the personnel difficulties posed by this unprecedented season.

“I just want to make the best of the opportunity,” Byfield said. “So if that’s playing in the NHL, I just want to make the best of my opportunity and hopefully stay out there. If not, wherever I go … I’m going to try and be the best player of myself and make an impact either way.”