While any development would be hard-pressed to overtake the emergence of goalie Pheonix Copley for this season’s biggest surprise, Quinton Byfield’s move to the flank has turned the franchise center of the future into the first-line left winger of the hour.
He’ll undoubtedly return to the left side of the Kings’ preferred trio Saturday when they host the upstart New Jersey Devils.
Byfield has gained confidence by the game, including when he racked up his first goal of the season and an assist in a 4-2 win over San Jose on Wednesday. He’s also been stronger along the boards and in puck recovery, advancing further through his progressions than earlier in his career.
So does the longtime pivot mind having to operate opposite leading goal-scorer Adrian Kempe with team captain Anze Kopitar manning the middle?
“If I can play on the top line with those guys, I’ll play anywhere,” Byfield said. “If I can just get minutes with those guys and get a lot of opportunities, I’ll take it any way it comes.”
In hockey, injuries are often the irresponsible parents of innovation, and they played a factor in finding Byfield ice time on the wing. Arthur Kaliyev and Trevor Moore’s week-to-week statuses opened space on the flanks. Byfield himself had a bit of a scare against Edmonton on Monday when he absorbed a big hit from Zach Hyman. In their victory over the Sharks, the Kings were without another winger, Viktor Arvidsson (non-COVID illness), who will likely be an option for Saturday.
Byfield’s promotion to the top line has also allowed the Kings to bolster their third line, where top point producer Kevin Fiala and linemate Gabe Vilardi, who trails Kempe by one goal for the team lead, have created mismatches consistently.
“What I like about our team right now is the balance,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “I’ve talked about this before, if you’re the opposing coach, are you picking Phil’s line or Kopi’s line? And all of a sudden that leaves our leading goal-scorer and our leading scorer for somebody else to play against. It’s worked well for a couple of weeks and we’d like to see it continue.”
New Jersey also forces its opponents to make tough matchup decisions, with a pair of former No. 1 overall picks as its top two pivots.
Centers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are the Devils’ top scorers, and they’ll enter Saturday’s clash with momentum. Hischier carries an eight-game scoring streak (six goals, five assists) into the match. Hughes snapped a five-gamer, over which he’d piled up 10 points, in a 5-3 win Tuesday over Carolina, which had recently strung together a 17-game point streak.
New Jersey was even hotter than that earlier in the season, when it won 13 consecutive games as part of a stretch in which it compiled 43 out of a possible 48 points. The Devils had been winless in eight of nine but have posted a 4-1-1 mark in their past six contests. Currently in a playoff position, they are trying to qualify for the postseason for only the second time since they lost to the Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
NEW JERSEY AT KINGS
When: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.
Where: Crypto.com Arena
TV/Radio: Bally Sports West/iHeart Radio