Elliott: Quinton Byfield proving his doubters wrong as he fuels Kings’ strong start

Patience might be a virtue, but it’s not always a popular sentiment in a win-now, tweet-fast world.

When the burden and high expectations that go with being chosen second overall in the 2020 NHL draft weren’t sitting comfortably on the broad shoulders of 6-foot-5, 225-pound Quinton Byfield, he was condemned by some fans as a bust. At 19.

No matter that his progress with the Kings was slowed by a fractured left ankle in October 2021, or that he was in COVID protocol two months later, or that he played last season with two sprained wrists. He clearly was smart and he did a lot of small but valuable things well after he was moved from center to play wing on the top line, but No. 2 draft picks are supposed to do more than fill a supporting role. He wasn’t scoring much, but the Kings continued to support him, ignoring calls to demote him on the depth chart.

Byfield’s path hasn’t been linear, but at 21 he’s reaching the levels that were projected for him. And he’s taking the Kings along for an exhilarating, record ride.

Byfield scored twice and contributed an assist Thursday night at Montreal to fuel the Kings’ 4-0 victory over the Canadiens and help them set an NHL record with 11 consecutive road wins to start the season. He has five goals and six points in his last six games, playing with confidence, using his surprising speed and his big body and his clever hands to their best advantage.

This is, at long last, his big moment. It’s also a big moment for the Kings, whose return to Stanley Cup contention hasn’t been linear, either, and has also required a hefty dose of patience.

With Byfield recording his second multigoal game this season, Anze Kopitar extending his franchise assists record by earning three more, and defenseman Drew Doughty scoring a goal for the third consecutive game, the Kings toppled the previous league record of 10 straight road wins to start the season, set by the 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Byfield was 4 years old that season.

“It’s really cool. A record going for that long and to be able to break it with that group of guys in there, it’s pretty special,” Byfield said in a postgame interview on Bally Sports West.

“It’s something we cherish, being road warriors. Everyone’s playing unbelievable. Another great game for us.”

Kings forward Quinton Byfield celebrates with his teammates after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens.

Kings forward Quinton Byfield celebrates with his teammates after scoring in the second period against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.

(Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

Kopitar, by contrast, was calm and businesslike about the Kings’ success when he spoke to reporters in Montreal. “It’s been going well, so we’re going to keep on trying to ride the wave,” said Kopitar, who broke Marcel Dionne’s franchise record of 757 assists last Sunday. “But it’s one game at a time. It’s really not looking ahead. It’s step by step and build on our game.”

Coach Todd McLellan, at least, happily noted the record. “Normally we’re downplaying achievements and talking about getting to the next game, but I think we have to acknowledge the group has played really well,” he told reporters in Montreal.

“I’m really proud of the group. They’ve accomplished something, yet it’s only Dec. 5, 7, something like that. And there’s a lot of hockey left.”

Alas, some of that hockey will be played at home, at Crypto.com Area, where the Kings are 5-4-3 this season.

First, they will have a shot Saturday to tie the record of 12 consecutive road wins in a single season, set in 2005-06 by the Red Wings and matched in 2014-15 by the Minnesota Wild. The Kings will face the New York Islanders to start a back-to-back sequence before finishing a four-game trip Sunday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

For context, the NHL record for road wins in a season (excluding neutral-site games) is 31, set by the Red Wings in 2005-06 and matched last season by the Boston Bruins. The record for best road points percentage in a season (actual points divided by possible points) is .825, set by the 1976-77 Canadiens. They were 27-7-6 on the road in an 80-game schedule; in that era, games tied after three periods were recorded as ties.

The Kings had a slow start Thursday and took an early penalty, but increasingly reliable goaltender Cam Talbot kept them in it en route to a 24-save shutout, his second shutout with the Kings and 30th of his career.

Doughty scored first, and Byfield followed at 17:46 by using his size, hands and instincts to cut to the net and slide the puck past goalie Sam Montembeault’s pad. Byfield also scored on a second-period power play, off a fine pass from Kopitar. Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore — who leads the Kings with eight goals and 16 points in road games — finished the scoring in the third with his team-high 13th goal this season.

It took a while, but the organization’s patience with Byfield is paying off.

“He’s been playing great all year, and I’m obviously very happy to see him get rewarded,” Kopitar said. “Just getting his confidence up and the way he’s playing. He’s playing big minutes and sometimes we get into some penalty troubles and he’s sitting on the bench, yet he’s still engaged, and it’s great to see. That’s definitely a sign of maturing and things to come.”

Byfield needed time to grow into his body, but everything seems to have clicked for him and for the Kings: they’re four points behind Pacific Division-leading Vegas and have four games in hand (Vegas doesn’t play Friday). “We’re having a lot of fun right now,” Byfield said, “and we’ve just got to keep it going.”

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