At the completion of the Calgary Flames‘ COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, it was apparent who the odd man out was on the team’s defensive depth chart. Oliver Kylington split last season playing for the Stockton Heat, languishing on the taxi squad and suiting up only eight times for the big club. It looked like the organization had given up on the 24-year-old blueliner, so I was a little bit surprised when the Flames re-signed him to a one-year, two-way contract for $750,000 in the offseason.
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Heading into the Flames’ main training camp, I didn’t know what to expect from Kylington coming off a very down year, but by all accounts, the young Swede has been a standout performer in a D-core still reeling from the loss of their captain and number one defenceman. It turns out the Flames were willing to give the native of Stockholm one more shot, and man, oh man is he making the most of it.
Kylington Has Been Killing It at Flames’ Camp
Heading into training camp, all anyone could talk about were the Flames’ offseason defence signings – all engineered to bolster the back end in the absence of Mark Giordano. Guys like Nikita Zadorov, Juuso Välimäki, Eric Gudbranson, and even Michael Stone were automatically penciled into the top six or seven defender positions. Nobody really gave Kylington a realistic chance to crack the opening night roster, but his recent play makes it very difficult for the coaching staff to leave him off.
After averaging only 13 minutes per game in 2020-21, Kylington has been logging closer to 20 minutes of average ice time in a majority of his six preseason appearances and has even seen the occasional shift on the power-play unit. In fact, according to NaturalStatTrick, the smooth-skating defenceman has been leading or near the top of several advanced stats – including 5-on-5 scoring chances, even-strength shot attempts, and expected goals against (xGA).
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If you don’t follow any of these newfangled statistical categories, I’ve also got a rather old-school take if that helps clarify the situation. The guy who wears No. 58 also passes the eye test – with flying colors. But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Flames Assistant Coach Ryan Huska, who worked with Kylington in Stockton for several seasons and talked to CalgaryFlames.com about how the 24-year-old has improved his overall game.
“He’s made some huge strides in how he defends and he’s starting to now put the whole game together. He’s able to use his speed and still get involved offensively, but he’s not put himself in situations that are going to cause our team some problems… I really do think that he’s keeping his game simpler. He’s maybe matured to the point where he realizes, ‘I don’t have to create something every shift.’ By being solid and using his speed, it’s going to give him a chance to play and help the team win.”Flames Assistant Coach Ryan Huska
All of this high praise from the Flames’ coaching staff sure makes it sound like Kylington should be a lock for the second or third pairing, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not that simple.
Who Gets Pushed Out of the Top Six if Kylington Makes the Team?
This is where things get a bit dicey. If the Flames base their decision solely on merit, and by how all of the defencemen have performed during the first seven games of the preseason, it’s evident who the odd man out should be. Zadorov has struggled mightily so far, but with the big Russian making nearly $4 million, can management justify sitting him out? He was signed to shore up Calgary’s D-core, but early returns on his play have not been positive.
One could argue that Zadorov’s true value will come in the regular season, where his trademark nastiness and physical play will pay more dividends. It’s no secret that preseason games can be completely devoid of passion, so when the regular season begins, wouldn’t you want that big body on the back end making life miserable for opposing forwards? Maybe, but now that Kylington has proven he’s more than an offensively gifted, one-dimensional player, I honestly think he adds more to the team than Zadorov does.
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Another scenario that keeps Kylington playing on the big club is to push Välimäki further down the depth chart. I don’t really like this option, as I truly believe the Flames should be developing their top young guns in the NHL and not burying them in the minors. And besides, Calgary just signed him to a two-year extension with a $1.55 million average annual value. Even after an up and down 2020-21 campaign, I feel the Flames still have high very hopes for the 23-year-old Finn heading into this season.
Sending Kylington to Stockton Would Require Placing Him on Waivers
Because Kylington is on a two-way contract, the young rearguard will have to clear waivers before reporting to the American Hockey League (AHL) Stockton Heat. Before his excellent training camp, I wasn’t too worried that he would be snatched off the waiver wire, but after proving he deserves an opening night roster spot, I’m not so sure anymore. The Flames have a huge decision ahead of them – keep the dynamic D-man on the main roster or potentially lose him for nothing.
Kylington has been plugging away in the Flames organization since the 2015-16 season, with 95 career NHL games under his belt. He recently told the media that he believes his time to shine is now: “I feel I’ve gained that experience over the past few years, and I obviously want to work on the details to try and elevate my game even further, as much as I can,” he told CalgaryFlames.com, “When the opportunity is there, obviously you want to make plays and generate some chances for the team. So far, I’d say it’s gone pretty well… I’m trying to seize every opportunity I get.”
Whether or not Kylington actually gets that golden opportunity to play for the big club or remains the odd man out will be one of the most interesting developments to come out of the Flames’ main training camp. To be honest, I have no idea how it will all play out.