It’s been quite the journey for Oliver Kylington since the Calgary Flames selected him in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He played extremely well for the formerly known Stockton Heat of the AHL after being drafted and was finally given an opportunity to show what he can do at NHL level in the 2018–19 season. And after being jerked around by the organization for the better part of two seasons (including going on waivers in January of 2021 and only seeing eight NHL games that season), he finally became a fixture in the Flames’ top-four in the 2021–22 season.
Playing 73 games along side Chris Tanev, we all thought this was just the first year of many of this version of Oliver Kylington. That was before he missed the entirety of the 2022–23 season dealing with a personal issue and being placed in the NHL and NHLPA Players Assistance Program, we now have to see what Kylington can become for the 2023–24 season.
Kylington’s skillset was missed
It was evident this year that the Flames missed the dynamic skillset that Kylington brought to the table. His skating ability that would allow him to get in and out of danger in the blink of an eye and the puck skills that made him, for better or for worse, a dangerous threat in the offensive zone. He gave the Flames something that they didn’t have, and with having one of the better defensive defencemen next to him each night, it allowed him to be free, and he quickly gained the trust of former head coach Darryl Sutter.
Without Kylington this past season, you could just tell the Flames had a hard time moving the puck up the ice in transition and they didn’t have that guy on the backend that could make high skilled plays like Kylington could. They were not a fast team, and not having arguably their most dynamic skater in the lineup all year clearly hurt them. So even if Kylington comes back at 65% of the player he was in 2021–22, it will be a huge boon to a defensive group that will need some much needed speed and skill.
Lowered expectations for the defenceman
Missing an entire year of professional hockey can hurt a player’s career, even if they have been training non-stop. Heck, even miss half a season can put a player totally off (look at William Nylander‘s 2018–19 season after his contract hold out). So for a player that has really only established himself in one full NHL season, our expectations for Kylington have to be tempered. He has not played an NHL game since Game 5 of the second round against the Edmonton Oilers in May of 2022, that’s an extremely long time for a player to not have played a game in a high pressure environment.
So what can we realistically expect from Kylington this upcoming season? I think there will be some struggles. If Noah Hanifin does indeed get traded, it won’t be unreasonable to think that Kylington starts exactly where he left off, on the second pair with Chris Tanev. If Hanifin sticks around, I would start him in a sheltered third pairing role for him to get his footing and legs underneath him. We have to remember, Kylington has struggled before, look no further than the 2019–20 season where he lost his job at the trade deadline and didn’t sniff the lineup come the bubble.
Kylington has only played one full NHL season and he did it with the best babysitter in the league on his pair, and if Tanev has trouble staying healthy, can Kylington perform without his presence on that pair? There is also going to be a new system in play, Kylington had major success in a incredibly stout defensive system run by Darryl Sutter, we will now have to see what he can do on a Ryan Huska-coached team.
He is coming back to a different team, a different coaching staff, and a team that is going to be under the microscope from the word go. No doubt he will be feeling the pressure. So if he does struggle, thats ok! He has to ease his way back into things, and it might take a while, but himself nor the fanbase cannot get frustrated if things don’t go as smoothly as they did in the 2021–22 season.
We are all rooting for Kylington
Kylington has always been a player that I have personally been rooting for. I thought he deserved better in the 2018–19 year after the deadline when he was effectively replaced by Oscar Fantenberg (even though I thought he played as well as he could have) and then after the 2020 trade deadline when he lost his roster spot when Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort were brought in. I was shocked and upset when the Flames waived him ahead of the 2021 bubble season and then went on to only play eight games that season even though there were guys ahead of him that were complete tire fires all year (I’m looking at you Nikita Nesterov).
Lastly, I couldn’t believe how well Kylington played in training camp ahead of the 2021–22 season only to see him play a total of 3:27 in the first two games combined before a Nikita Zadorov injury saw him slot in along side Tanev, and he never looked back.
I honestly couldn’t find a single Flames fan that wasn’t rooting for Kylington, he could have requested a trade a long time ago but he stuck it out and earned his spot in the lineup. So when Oliver does return, he’ll know that we will all be behind him and rooting for him to succeed again. And this is one story that I am genuinely excited to see unfold for this upcoming year, and even though we may see some struggles, I cannot wait to see #58 back on the ice for the Flames.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire