Quinton Byfield and Tim Stuetzle said what you’d expect with the NHL draft less than two weeks away.
During a virtual media session with other top prospects Thursday, the two players most widely-projected to be the Kings’ second overall pick sounded similar notes, declaring they both want to break into the NHL as soon as next season and will feel fortunate regardless of which team they end up with.
The pair’s most important conversations of the pre-draft process, after all, took place long before this. For teams at the top of next month’s draft board, there’s little left to learn about the highly regarded prospects expected to be, in some order, the Nos. 2 and 3 picks after Alexis Lafreniere.
Come Oct. 6, the overwhelming likelihood is that one of the two will be slipping on a black Kings uniform.
And according to director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti, the club is already “pretty confident” in who they're going to pick.
For the Kings to change to course now, “something drastic would have to happen,” Yannetti said by phone this week. “It took a long time to separate who we had at two and who we had at three.”
“This,” he added, “was the hardest decision I’ve had in L.A. probably.”
That’s no small claim. In his 13 years running the Kings' amateur scouting department, Yannetti’s had a hand in almost 100 total selections, 11 first-round picks, and four in the top-five overall. In 2008, the last time the Kings picked second in the draft, they chose Drew Doughty from a similarly small group of top-end contenders. Last year, they felt they got a steal by getting Alex Turcotte at No. 5.
But this draft is different, both because of the specific players populating the top of their board and the extra time with which they’ve had to evaluate them.
While the COVID-19 pandemic denied the team a typical in-person interview process and reduced their opportunities to watch the prospects with their own eyes, the draft’s postponement from June to October gave the Kings an unusually long period to finalize their assessments.
Yannetti said the team “drew the process out intentionally,” cross-referencing their in-person scouting reports with an unprecedented amount of video analysis and analytical data.
In Stuetzle, they saw a player who excelled in Germany’s top professional league, validating his top-line status with 34 points and a plus-four rating in 41 games.
With Byfield, they took note of his response to an underwhelming performance in the World Junior Championships, as he registered 25 points in his final 15 Ontario Hockey League games.
The Kings considered other prospects too, organizing an impressive draft class into several tiers.
"We had two guys almost coin-flip close," Yannetti said, "and then we had three guys really banging on the door but not quite at that level."
Yannetti didn’t specify which two players the Kings’ decision came down to, or who holds the edge with the pre-draft just about complete.
But it seems unlikely that, after consensus No. 1 pick Lafreniere, the Kings were more focused on anyone but Stuetzle and Byfield. And when asked to compare the two specifically, Yannetti drew very few distinctions.
“I think the development curve is a lot more similar with those guys than people might have said,” he explained, pushing back somewhat against the common perception that Stuetzle is clearly the more “NHL ready” of the two.
“I think they’re both probably, in a physical sense, in a similar area as to readiness to play.”
In his view, neither player appears quite yet prepared for an immediate jump to the NHL. And even if one of them was closer to their full physical maturation, Yannetti insisted “it would have almost no bearing on our decision. It would be infinitesimal. There’s so many other rating points and evaluation points I would use, that one wouldn’t come into play.”
Instead, the Kings are looking at the long-term benefits of each player, weighing the big-picture progress of their rebuild over all else.
“Making the right pick here could speed along the process by two years, or it could add two or three years on the back end of how long you’re a contender,” Yannetti said. “The pressure isn’t any different, but the importance certainly is.”