TSN Hockey Reporter Mark Masters reports on the World Junior Hockey Championship. Team Canada practised at the Downtown Community Arena inside the Edmonton bubble on Wednesday.
Quinton Byfield posted just two assists in his first nine games at the World Juniors. On Tuesday, the Sudbury Wolves centre exploded for six points, including two goals, as Canada blanked Switzerland 10-0.
"We're all real happy to see him have a night like that," said alternate captain Dylan Cozens. "We needed him to step up and he did. I think that's just the start for him and he'll keep getting better from here on out. He will keep improving and take his game to the next level. We know that's just a glimpse of what he can do."
Those words were enough to make the big man blush.
"That's a lot to ask, but I'm definitely feeling good about my game now and got the monkey off my back and there's a lot more to come," Byfield vowed.
Byfield threw the metaphorical monkey off his back at the bench after scoring his first goal against the Swiss.
"When either Connor McMichael or I score we always give a smile to each other and I think he said something about the monkey and I threw it off," Byfield said. "Finally."
In the wake of the game, Byfield described the breakthrough as a relief. Last year, he started in a top-six role in Ostrava and finished as the 13th forward. This year, he admittedly started slow at the selection camp in mid-November while adjusting to the 10-plus pounds of muscle he put on during the pandemic pause.
Head coach Andre Tourigny pushed him to be better early on, but also applauded the Newmarket, Ont., native for being coachable and improving his puck management.
"He's a more mature man than last year," said Tourigny, an assistant coach a year ago. "He's easier to coach. When I say, 'Easier to coach,' I mean it’s easier for him to make adjustments. Last year, at 17-years-old, at some point it can be a tough situation, but this year, even though he's the youngest guy on the team, he's real easy to coach."
Byfield was the second overall pick by the Los Angeles Kings in October's National Hockey League draft and has a dynamic blend of size, speed and soft hands. But that combination also comes with added pressure to produce.
"Definitely wears on you a little bit, but not too much," he said. "I knew it was going to come. I was playing the right way and playing how they wanted us to play. I was still feeling good about my game."
Byfield sat down with TSN on Wednesday to go over all six of his points and share some insight on his game.
First point - Primary assist on an even-strength goal by Phil Tomasino
"I miss a check there, which isn't good (smile), but try and get on the back-check and [Jack] Quinn strips a guy and I hear Tommy calling for it coming from the bench and I know he's hot so I threw him the puck."
On the broadcast, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro applauded the way Byfield delivered the puck into Tomasino's wheelhouse.
"I knew he was coming from the bench on a little bit of a weird angle so I made not too hard of a pass and gave him the opportunity to shoot without stick handling. He didn't have to dust it off and could get a quick release off and it fooled the goalie."
Even though he missed the check at the start of the sequence, Byfield's ability to be a disruptor on the forecheck has made him an even more dangerous player.
"It's gotten a lot better. Instead of just reaching for the stick and doing stick lifts to grab the puck I'm being more physical and that creates more turnovers and allows the second guy to come in and support the puck."
Second point - Secondary assist on an even-strength goal by Jakob Pelletier
"I saw the defender coming at me, but then he kind of backed up and wasn't coming fully at me. I looked at his skates and saw he was turning the other way and I knew I had the middle to cut in and I saw [Connor] Zary coming off the bench and him and Pelts were going to the net pretty hard and I think it was just the right play to give them the puck and the rest happened from there."
Third point - Primary assist on power-play goal by Ryan Suzuki
"Me and Zukes were working them low for a little bit and then really opening them up. He put a nice shot down low and I tried to put in the rebound and tried kicking it to myself, but kind of messed up and Zukes was in the right spot and buried it nicely."
What's the key to being a good net-front guy on the power play?
"Being able to get in the goalie's eyes and goalie's presence is definitely huge and then puck recoveries when the flank is shooting and the D is shooting and getting your stick on as much as you can and always being an option and being open for a tip or shot pass. There's a lot to do down there."
Fourth point - Power-play goal off a Jamie Drysdale point shot
"It was a really good shot by Drysie. He noticed I was kind of alone in front and he put a perfect shot there and I was lucky to get my stick on it. I was a little shocked, almost, you know, because I haven't scored in a while. I think that was my first goal since February so you're still super excited, but you have to respect your opponent and respect the score and tried to keep it as humble as I could there."
Fifth point - Even-strength goal off a pass from Quinn
"Me and Quinner were a little late on the back check there. We were early on the forecheck, but trying to get on the back check. Pelletier makes a good play there and gets the puck up to Quinner. Then a great pass by Quinner, a little saucer pass over the stick. I was trying to go far side along the ice and it worked out going far side, but not along the ice."
Sixth point - Primary assist on even-strength goal by Pelletier
"It started off with a won draw and then Pelts makes a good play along the wall on the far side with the D pinching down and then I drive the net there. Quinner doesn't get a shot off but creates a jam in the corner and we win the battle there and Pelts throws it to the net and I stripped it off the Swiss guy and got the puck to Pelts and I knew he was going to bury that one."
Byfield is actually the second Canadian player to notch a six-point night at this year's World Juniors. Cozens accomplished the feat with three goals and three assists in the opener against Germany. The Lethbridge centre was asked where he improved the most during the lengthy off-season.
"Moving the puck up the ice," the Buffalo Sabres’ first rounder said, "just skating with it and having the confidence on zone entries and creating offence in the zone, creating offence from nothing."
How do you create offence from nothing?
"Sometimes it's just beating a guy, you know, spinning off him in the O-zone and creating a lane to the net or a passing lane," Cozens said. "That's the biggest thing is just kind of beating a guy one-on-one and taking it to the net."
Cozens had nine points in seven games last year in his first World Juniors and is even more confident this time around.
"I do feel stronger and faster and bigger in every aspect of my game," he said. "I'm happy with a lot of the work I've put in this off-season and it's starting to pay off."
Cozens has exchanged texts with Sabres forward Sam Reinhart, a World Junior gold medallist in 2015, throughout the tournament.
"When I got to [Sabres] camp, you know, he was a great leader for me right away and kind of took me under his wing," Cozens said. "I got to meet him at the draft and he's a guy I kept in touch with a bit and he's been with Team Canada at the World Juniors and knows what it's like."
After three games at World Juniors and four games as a group overall, Tourigny feels Team Canada is starting to get in a groove.
"We have more chemistry," the coach observed. "We have less hesitation in our game. We have more structure. We have more confidence. We know more who we are. We're a hard forechecking team who has the ability to counterattack really quickly with a quick strike. We have big bodies who can get on the forecheck and create a lot of turnovers. Our D skates really well and can kill plays in the neutral zone. So, we know better who we are than a week ago."
What's the identity of this year's Team Canada?
"We're very relentless," said defenceman Kaiden Guhle. "We're big. We're fast. Our forecheck is very tough to play against. We're very resilient, very relentless. We're a big, fast team that makes it tough for the other team and we're trying to build on that every game."
Maple Leafs prospects Mikko Kokkonen, Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemela spoke with TSN about the improvements they've made this season, the direction they've received from Toronto's player development staff and how Team Finland matches up against Canada.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
TSN: Where do you feel your game has improved the most this season?
Hirvonen, a forward with Assat: "I've improved my all-around game and my skating. I've gotten more scoring chances this season because I have more speed in my game and that's the biggest thing."
Niemela, a defenceman with Karpat: "I have improved my defensive game. I've watched videos and improved also my shot."
Kokkonen, a defenceman with Jukurit: "I have improved my defensive game and the most important thing that I have to improve is my offensive game right now."
TSN: How are you working on that?
Kokkonen: "I have watched lots of videos with [director of player development] Stephane Robidas and our own staff and I have learned so much."
TSN: What's been the message from the Leafs to you this season?
Hirvonen: "We talk about small things in my game like how to get more open in the offensive zone and how to get more pucks."
Niemela: "I have to get stronger. I have to play faster and play defence more."
Kokkonen: "I have to be better in the offensive zone and, of course, my skating has to be better if I want to play in the NHL. I have worked a lot on that so I'm on my way."
TSN: How do you think Finland matches up against Canada?
Kokkonen: "We have a really good team right now. We are, like, really all-around team. We have offensive guys and guys to PK and we can play every situation really good."
Hirvonen: "We are a good all-around team with good defensive players and everyone has played in the Liiga one or two years so we're really good and we'll minimize their scoring chances and score a few goals and I think that way we can win."
Niemela: "They have a good team, but we have also. It'll be a tough game but I think we're going to beat them."
In the weeks leading up to selection camp, goalie coach Jason LaBarbera sent video clips of Carter Hart, Mikey DiPietro and Joel Hofer playing at the World Juniors to the group of five netminders looking to secure Canada's starting job.
"Devon Levi wanted more," said LaBarbera. "He wanted full games. He wanted the full gold-medal game from last year. He's trying to get better and learn every day."
That approach allowed Levi to stand out immediately at the camp even though he was stuck in a cohort quarantine with two other NCAA players during the first week and didn't play a game until the third of four intra-squad scrimmages.
"I really liked where he was at and he's just done nothing but trend in the right direction," LaBarbera said. "I like his demeanour and how he approaches things."
LaBarbera admits that it's "pretty wild" that a kid who hasn't played any major junior or NCAA games has won Canada's No. 1 job at the World Juniors. The Northeastern University freshman also wasn't invited to Canada's summer virtual camp.
So, what separated him from the pack?
"His edge work is elite," said LaBarbera. "When you watch him in games, practice, goalie drills, his ability to hold his edges and be able to move but also be able to change directions and grab his edges and get where he needs to go is elite. It's a big reason why Florida drafted him and a big reason why he's played at a high level here."
There's still areas that need to improve. A good chunk of Wednesday's practice, for example, was focused on puck handling.
"Just getting on the same page with our D," said LaBarbera. "We haven't had a lot of practice time to work on those things. In a normal season you're on the same page and the calls are dialled in and the sharpness of that stuff. You want to make sure everyone is on the same page. The more you can be clean with those things the easier it is for everybody."
Lines at Canada's practice on Wednesday:
Holloway - McMichael - Cozens
Perfetti - Newhook - Krebs
Quinn- Byfield - Pelletier
Mercer - Suzuki - Tomasino
Byram - Drysdale
Harley - Schneider
Guhle - Barron
Korczak (R) - Spence