Color of Hockey: Byfield leads 2020 NHL Draft candidates

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Holding the 2020 NHL Draft virtually hasn’t diminished its luster or changed the emotional roller coaster for Zayde Wisdom and other players who are anxious to hear their names called Tuesday and Wednesday.

The draft was scheduled for June 26-27 at Bell Centre in Montreal but was postponed March 25 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Instead, the first round will be held Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) followed by rounds 2-7 on Wednesday (11:30 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN1).

“Just getting drafted in the first place is special enough,” said Wisdom, a forward with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League who is ranked No. 54 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting entering the draft. “There’s a lot of mixed emotions going into it. Sometimes I’m super-excited, sometimes I’m super-nervous, sometimes I’ll be both at the same time.”

Wisdom is one of at least eight players of color who are ranked by NHL Central Scouting and could be selected in the draft’s seven rounds.

Here’s a look at all eight:

Quinton Byfield, C, Sudbury (OHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 2 (North American skaters)

A combination of size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), speed, strength and skill, Byfield is poised to become the highest Black player selected in the NHL Draft if he’s one of the first three picks. He would surpass San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane (2009, Atlanta Thrashers) and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (2013, Nashville Predators), who were each selected at No. 4. The 18-year-old center led Sudbury in scoring and was 14th in the Ontario Hockey League last season with 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists). He won 51.9 percent of his face-offs (304-of-586) and had one assist in seven games for first-place Canada at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

“You’re looking at a kid who’s 6-foot-4 and weighs 215, so it wouldn’t surprise me if jumps into the NHL and plays right away,” said Sudbury coach Cory Stillman, a 1992 first-round pick (No. 6) by the Calgary Flames. “But then again, when you get to that level you’re playing against great players that are men. Being off for so long in the summer, people training and getting bigger and better, he might be able to come back in January, whenever the NHL starts, and he could be bigger, stronger and be ready to play and play in a top role.”

Byfield said he did gain weight and strength during the extended offseason.

“I still have the ability to keep my speed and everything up,” he said.

Justin Sourdif, C, Vancouver (WHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 23 (North American skaters)

A playmaker and scorer who is also defensively responsible, Sourdif (5-11, 173) was Vancouver’s third-leading scorer last season with 54 points (26 goals, 28 assists) in 57 games. The 18-year-old from Richmond, British Columbia, scored five points (one goal, four assists) in five games to help Canada finish second at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

“Sourdif is a highly skilled, creative player,” NHL Central Scouting’s John Williams said. “His ability from the dots down in traffic is very good. [He] can make plays or finish them off, has a very good stick and is also able to kill penalties.”

Joonas Oden, LW, KooKoo (Liiga)

NHL Central Scouting No. 36 (European skaters)

All 31 teams bypassed Oden in the 2019 NHL Draft, but the 6-foot, 183-pound Finn, who was born in Washington State, thinks this year will be a different story after his breakout performance at the 2020 World Juniors. The 20-year-old forward was Finland’s third-leading scorer with six points (three goals, three assists) in seven games, including the goal that gave Finland a 1-0 win against the United States in the quarterfinals. He scored 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 41 games for KooKoo last season.

“Because of the World Juniors, I’ve been noticed more,” Oden said. “In my opinion, I thought I had really good games in that tournament.”

Zayde Wisdom, RW, Kingston, (OHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 54 (North American skaters)

The 18-year-old from Toronto surged in NHL Central Scouting’s rankings, rising from No. 90 in January to No. 54 in its final report. A 5-10, 195-pound physical forward with a scoring touch, Wisdom scored 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists) in 62 games for Kingston, up from 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 60 games in 2018-19. Wisdom also won the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence, presented by NHL Central Scouting and given to the candidate who best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism.

Central Scouting director Dan Marr told the NHL Draft Class podcast that “a lot of teams are sitting there hoping they may be able to grab this guy in the third round, but he might not be there.”

Wisdom said his rise in the Central Scouting rankings was no accident.

“I worked hard to get up to that position, so I’m proud of myself, for sure,” he said. “I know my abilities and I knew I could get up there. All it took was a little push and it happened.”

Isaak Phillips, D, Sudbury (OHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 114 (North American skaters)

Byfield’s 19-year-old teammate scored 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 63 games with Sudbury, nearly doubling his output from 2018-19 (14 points; three goals, 11 assists in 68 games). Stillman said Phillips’ game is improving as he becomes more comfortable being a big-bodied player. The 6-2, 193-pound defenseman was 5-10, 149 pounds when Sudbury drafted him in 2017.

“He had to work into his body, but I think he’s going to be a good player,” Stillman said. “He’s going to take a little bit of time. He’s a guy that will come back to play junior next year and play bigger minutes. He’s a fast skater who moves extremely well. He’s a player that’s going to skate himself out of trouble and then make a good first pass. A team is going to get a good player, whoever drafts him.”

David Ma, D, Shattuck-St. Mary’s (U.S. high school)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 128 (North American skaters)

Ma, an 18-year-old native of Yonkers, New York, scored 33 points (four goals, 29 assists) in 36 games for Shattuck St. Mary’s, a Minnesota high school hockey power. Ma (5-10, 169) appeared in four games for the United States’ Under-18 team at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup. He has committed to play for Princeton University in 2021-22.

“He thinks the game at a pretty high level and sees things that other guys don’t see,” Shattuck-St. Mary’s coach Rick Metro said. “He’s pretty much the total package. He’s got a good skill set, elite passing ability and he’s a really, really good defender as well. When you have that combination as a defenseman, it’s pretty good.”

Christian Jimenez, D, Sioux City (USHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 184 (North American skaters)

Jimenez was Sioux City’s top-scoring defenseman as a rookie last season with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 42 games and was tied for third on the Musketeers in points. The 18-year-old finished eighth in scoring among USHL defensemen and was named to the USHL All-Rookie Team. The Yorktown Heights, New York, native has committed to play for Harvard University in 2021-22.

“He’s a leader-character guy,” Sioux City coach Luke Strand said. “His skillset on the ice allows him to play both ends. His point total last year, I think, helped gain a lot of confidence that there is a lot of offense in his stick. But at the same time, he’s so dependable in situational usage. The one thing you can say about him is he’s two feet in in the way he studies, the way he trains, the way he prepares. He comes to Sioux, jumped in with both feet. He wants to leave his legacy everywhere he goes, and you can tell with his actions.”

Jimenez also wants to be a role model and encourage more Hispanics to play hockey.

“I would definitely go to the urban communities, for sure,” he said. “I want to get a young kid that was (like) my dad all that time ago who wasn’t afforded the opportunity to play hockey, but he’ll be granted one.”

Jeremie Biakabutuka, D, Val-d’Or (QMJHL)

NHL Central Scouting: No. 209 (North American skaters)

The 6-4, 199-pound mobile defenseman from Longueil, Quebec, scored 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 47 games during his second season with Val-d’Or. Coach Daniel Renaud said Biakabutuka could be a late-round diamond in the rough for any team that selects him.

“He’s not in play in the next two or three years,” Renaud said. “You’re just putting a big body on your depth chart with great technique, great shot, great skating, great everything. It’s going to take him some time, but I think the investment can be very rewarding.”

Biakabutuka agrees.

“I’m ranked pretty low, I think I’m sixth round or seventh round,” he said. “But you never know, it’s a draft. All you need is one team to believe in you.”

Photos courtesy of Getty and Shattuck-St. Mary’s

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