Entering the 2021–22 season, the Calgary Flames desperately needed somebody to take a step forward and fill their final top-four spot on defence.
The Flames already had Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, and Rasmus Andersson locked into spots. Nikita Zadorov was certainly paid like a No. 4 defender, but he really struggled and spent time as a healthy scratch early on.
Juuso Valimaki received a couple of looks at the start of the year but had a tough time clicking under Darryl Sutter. Connor Mackey spent most of the season in the AHL.
During the 2021 off-season, the Flames re-signed Oliver Kylington to a one-year contract extension. Even so, he was a bit of an afterthought coming into training camp and seemed destined to spend another year as a depth defender.
Not so fast. While his counterparts struggled to latch on, Kylington emerged as a natural fit next to Tanev on the Flames’ second pair in his first full NHL season.
He’s certainly not a perfect player, but few young defencemen are — and Kylington has a lot going for him.
The Flames selected Oliver Kylington with the second-last pick (No. 60) in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, seven spots after where they took Rasmus Andersson.
Kylington was a polarizing prospect in the years leading up to his selection. Some saw him as a possible high first-round pick; others, evidently, viewed him in much lower esteem. His stock fell during his draft year and he ended up barely being a second-rounder.
The Flames immediately brought Kylington over to play in the American Hockey League. He spent three full seasons with the Stockton Heat, topping out at 35 points (seven goals, 28 assists) in 62 games with the team in 2017–18, before receiving his first long look in the NHL in 2018–19.
Kylington appeared in 86 games with the Flames over the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons, but he seldom received deployment beyond the bottom pair. He scored 15 points in those 86 games but was replaced in the lineup at back-to-back trade deadlines (remember Oscar Fantenberg and Derek Forbort?) and never saw the ice in the playoffs.
At the start of the 2020–21 season, the Flames placed Kylington on waivers. Nobody claimed him. Despite Nikita Nesterov’s continued struggles as a regular roster player, Kylington ended up playing just eight games all year long.
The Flames lost Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 Expansion Draft, creating a gaping hole on the left side of their defensive depth chart.
While the Flames subsequently reallocated most of Giordano’s cap space to Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson, the Flames still needed someone to play a top-four role.
Enter Kylington, who took a massive leap forward in training camp to steal the spot next to Tanev. The 24-year-old defender emerged as one of the Flames’ most dynamic players, using his great speed to regularly jump in on the rush.
Kylington made the odd mistake, but he was fortunate enough to play with a top-end defensive defenceman who helped him thrive — and he also proved himself capable of quickly getting back into his own zone to make up for his errors.
Then, something happened. In late February, during a game against the Minnesota Wild, Kylington caught an edge while battling for the puck and fell head-first into the boards in the Flames’ end. It was a scary play, and while Kylington quickly returned to the lineup three nights later, he didn’t look right.
Kylington was fumbling pucks, losing his balance, and (most unusually) whiffing on basically every one-time pass he received in a dangerous scoring area. He still skated with great speed, but the other aspects of his game deteriorated.
After remaining in the lineup throughout March, Kylington sat out the first two weeks of April. He returned to play the final nine games of the regular season and looked significantly better. He finished the year with nine goals and 31 points in 73 games.
The Kylington-Tanev pairing was one of the very best in hockey during the 2021–22 season, posting the sixth-best five-on-five expected goals percentage (56.86, according to Natural Stat Trick) of any defensive duo to spend at least 500 minutes together.
Kylington spent very little time away from Tanev during the 2021–22 regular season but was forced to play without him for much of the playoffs.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Flames posted a 54.75 five-on-five expected goals percentage in 95:43 with both Kylington and Tanev on the ice in the playoffs; during Kylington’s shifts without Tanev, the Flames’ expected goals percentage improved to 56.78 in 85:52.
Kylington is set to become a restricted free agent this summer. He’ll command a decent raise over the $750,000 he earned in 2021–22, although he might have to take a bridge deal to remain with the Flames.
As things currently stand, Kylington is clearly Calgary’s second-best left-handed defenceman and he has plenty of room to grow as a player. He scored more than 30 points — an impressive feat for any defenceman — in his first full NHL season and didn’t even rely on the power play to do it.
Kylington, like many young defencemen before him, is somewhat prone to making mistakes with the puck. He also has the ability to make incredible plays, and we saw more of the latter than the former in 2021–22.
Unless they can land a top-flite defenceman this summer who pushes Kylington to the third pairing, there’s no reason why the Flames shouldn’t return to the Kylington-Tanev unit to start the 2022–23 season. He’s only just getting started in this league, and he has the talent to be a contributor in this league for a long, long time.
2021-22 Flames player evaluations
Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm | Chris Tanev | Adam Ruzicka | Milan Lucic | Andrew Mangiapane | Tyler Toffoli | Dan Vladar | Rasmus Andersson | Brett Ritchie
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