Oliver Kylington is the talk of the town. Drafted seven seasons ago, he has been a Calgary Flames training camp staple for years, but has never made an impact like he is now. Considered a long shot to play regular minutes at the beginning of camp, his strong play has been highlighted time and time again.
His performance is making waves outside of Calgary, with Elliotte Friedman even shouting out his performance in his recent 32 Thoughts blog. For the Flames, it’s a pleasant surprise to see this once high-end prospect establishing himself after it seemed his time in Calgary may be coming to an end.
The additions of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson this offseason, along with the re-signing of Michael Stone, seemed to point to a lack of organizational faith in Kylington to make the team. In particular the left-shot Zadorov seemed to take a spot away from Kylington, who was already behind another former top prospect Juuso Valimaki and top-four anchor Noah Hanifin on the depth chart last year.
But saying Kylington is a former top prospect is not to say he does’nt still have promise, only that the initial excitement has dimmed over time from draft day.
Taking it back to draft day
Going back to 2015, Kylington was a top ranked prospect, #24 on Bob Mckenzie’s list for the year. That put him 25 spots ahead of fellow Flame Rasmus Andersson in the same year. On Sportsnet’s list he was ranked #11 in March, but fell to #29 by the June iteration of the same list. Yet the Flames managed to snag him 60th overall, as good an indication as any he would be a valuable pick for the team.
His selling point, above all else, was his skating. His speed and agility were (and are) the whole package. Mobility and puck-moving are key for NHL defencemen, and even then there was no doubt about Kylington’s mobility—his skating was highlighted many times after two seasons playing in the top Swedish pro league as a teenager.
Interestingly, the narrative around struggling defensively we hear today didn’t seem to start until after draft day. At the time, scouts considered him a strong two-way defenceman whose high-end skating allowed him to control gaps well defending the rush, and recover for occasional poor positioning in his own end.
Perhaps part of his slide at the draft compared to his initial ranking can be associated to a last-second change of heart on the matter, or maybe teams just decided that players needed more than impeccable skating and a solid shot to be a first-round quality pick. Whatever happened, not only did he slide well down the draft board, he also didn’t make the jump to the NHL as quickly as hoped either.
Kylington, six years on
The excitement of drafting a projected first-round talent late in the second round was palpable at the time. Taken just seven spots after Andersson, fans could be forgiven for already penciling the two into the Flames’ future lineup as a pairing. Who doesn’t love to get ahead of themselves on draft day?
Any question about his offensive abilities left (some scouts thought that beyond his skating he may lack creativity to go along with his skating) were quickly answered with his first season in the AHL, scoring 12 points in 47 games as a rookie.
What, then, is the missing link in his game after all this time? What is that last step to clear to make the NHL full-time? He nearly managed it once before in 2018 on arguably a much stronger team, playing 38 games. Has he found something new this preseason to lock in his position?
Coaches have praised his skating and critiqued his defence in Calgary and in Stockton for years. Clearly, the next step in his game is to tidy up his defence.
The good news? His preseason defensive statistics have been exceptional. Below are a selection of defensive metrics taken at 5v5 and adjusted for score and venue, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick. The bracketed numbers are Kylington’s rank on the team in each category.
|Oliver Kylington||60:37 (4)||40.0 (3)||1.3 (2)||2.9 (16)|
Granted, it is the preseason and some nights the competition isn’t exactly elite, but it’s promising to see such positive results. Presumably, if he has this much success in the preseason against mixed NHL/AHL squads, he’s a cut above the AHL level at the least.
It’s especially impressive that he’s received so much praise given the high rate of scoring against when he is on the ice relative to expected. This typically indicates weak goaltending, which often leads to blame for defencemen, but not in this case. Kylington has played too well to take much blame for the goals against while he’s out there.
Beyond the advanced stats, coach Darryl Sutter also had some comments on how Kylington could stay at the NHL level this season. In his words in this interview, “the key there is not turning the puck over.” Sutter’s comments about Kylington start at about the 58 second mark.
And per NaturalStatTrick, he has recorded just one through the preseason, a much lower rate than his 65 in 94 career games to date.
Another criteria Sutter notes is that he sees the team as having four pairs that he’s comfortable with, meaning to make the team the whole pair has to earn it. And, he also says that he sees Kylington not as top-four material, but as a bottom-pairing possibility. So, among the four pairs he’s comfortable with, it’s really between these two for the bottom pair role:
Considering the team is paying Gudbranson more than twice what they are Stone, for whatever reason, they likely see him as higher on the depth chart. Meaning that the key things Kylington needs to do to make the team this year are essentially done. His turnover numbers are down, and his partner seems set in his position on the depth chart. That’s not to say high salary guarantees ice time, but it certainly helps.
Proof of that is Gudbranson himself, who has been struggling all throughout the preseason, but is eighth on the team in minutes. What that means is Kylington has essentially met the criteria Sutter mentioned in the press conference, by turning the puck over less and being a part of a pair he trusts. Opportunity knocks for Kylington this year.
Kylington’s make-or-break moment
Six years removed from his draft, the clock is ticking ever faster on Kylington’s development. His odds of making the team seem high, but that will rely on his partner, as Sutter said.
In this pivotal moment of his career, Kylington is faced with what might be his last chance to prove himself. Let’s hope Gudbranson can perform better in the regular season to help Kylington along, rather than hold him back.
If he does, having Kylington on the team could be a huge break for the Flames after the loss of Mark Giordano. Everyone will need to pick up the slack, and a puck-moving player like Kylington could really help fill the offensive void left by Giordano.
Hopefully, when the regular season rolls around, Kylington is in Calgary and not Stockton.