After losing team captain @Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in July, the Calgary Flames desperately needed somebody to step into a top-four role on defence in 2021–22.
Their combined $5.7 million cap hit notwithstanding, @Nikita Zadorov and @Erik Gudbranson were both unlikely to ever fill that void. @Connor Mackey’s waiver-exempt status likely sealed his fate before he could ever get a chance to crack the Flames’ lineup.
Juuso Välimäki appeared to have the inside track toward a top-four spot heading into the 2021–22 season. The 23-year-old defenceman appeared in 49 of the Flames’ 56 games in 2020–21 and looked perfectly capable in his bottom-pairing minutes. Given Giordano’s departure and the Flames’ lack of depth on the left side, a promotion seemed inevitable for the 2017 first-round pick.
Then, something funny happened: Flames head coach Darryl Sutter paired @Oliver Kylington, the team’s forgotten man, alongside defensive stalwart @Chris Tanev for a pre-season game against the Seattle Kraken on Sept. 29. Kylington played just eight NHL games in 2020–21 while toiling behind Välimäki, @Nikita Nesterov, and @Michael Stone on the Flames’ depth chart.
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And… it worked. It really worked. Kylington logged a team-leading 24:27 in the game, including 23:20 at 5-on-5. He led all Calgary players with nine shot attempts and three scoring chances. With Kylington on the ice at 5-on-5, the Flames controlled 84.48% of the expected goals — once again, the best mark of any player on the team.
(All expected goals figures in this article come from Natural Stat Trick.)
In the Seattle game, Kylington was a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the ice.
Kylington was excellent again in the Flames’ 4-1 exhibition win over the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 1 and continued playing well throughout the pre-season, only significantly faltering in the team’s 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets in their exhibition finale. Against Winnipeg on Oct. 8, Kylington posted a team-worst 10.72 expected goals percentage (xGF%) while spending most of his 13:40 of 5-on-5 ice-time next to Gudbranson (who had the second-worst xGF% on the team).
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Overall, Kylington thoroughly succeeded in the 2021 pre-season. He logged big minutes and consistently drove play at both ends of the ice, ending up with the third-best 5-on-5 xGF% among the 10 Flames defencemen who played exhibition games. Only Tanev and @Noah Hanifin fared better in that category.
After his excellent training camp, Kylington made the Flames to start the 2021–22 regular season. He was in the lineup for their season-opening game against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 16 but was used only as a reserve, logging just 3:27 in the first 40 minutes and sitting on the bench for the entire third period.
The Flames opted to scratch Kylington two nights later for their home opener against the Anaheim Ducks. Instead, Zadorov lined up on Tanev’s left side against the Ducks … and the results spoke for themselves. Tanev and Zadorov ranked last and second-last on the Flames, respectively, for both xGF% and Corsi For percentage (CF%) in the game.
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On Oct. 21, Sutter made the gutsy decision to park Zadorov, his team’s $3.75 million off-season acquisition, in the press box for Calgary’s game against the Detroit Red Wings. Zadorov would ultimately remain on the shelf for five consecutive games. Kylington entered the lineup in Zadorov’s place and immediately picked up where he left off in the pre-season.
Despite not picking up a point against Detroit, Kylington logged 16:55 of 5-on-5 ice-time and was one of the Flames’ top offensive play-drivers in the game. He led the team with two scoring chances and ranked second with five shot attempts; the Flames amassed 0.45 expected goals with Kylington on the ice at 5-on-5, the third-best figure on the team.
Since being re-inserted into the lineup, Kylington has consistently been one of the Flames’ best players. His 58.73 xGF% in 2021–22 ranks third on the team (min. 5 GP), behind only @Matthew Tkachuk and @Elias Lindholm.
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On Tuesday, he gave Flames fans an early candidate for the best “ping!” goal of the season.
Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model paints a very encouraging picture for Kylington. It gives him a +2.5 GAR rating through just nine games, the seventh-best on the team. With figures adjusted for time on ice, Kylington improves to fourth on the Flames (behind only Lindholm, @Johnny Gaudreau, and @Andrew Mangiapane) with +1.067 GAR per 60 minutes.
Kylington is managing to soar to new heights while playing against tough competition in a top-four role. He’s long been capable of handling himself in his own zone against lesser opponents, but there have been questions about his ability to defend against top-line talent and his lack of offensive production in the NHL.
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He’s putting both those concerns to bed early this season. Kylington is currently riding a career-long five-game point streak, most recently adding an extremely impressive assist against the Stars on Thursday:
Tanev, who was Calgary’s best defensive player in 2020–21, has been significantly more effective at both ends this year when paired with Kylington instead of the much pricier Zadorov.
In 131:28 of 5-on-5 ice-time away from Zadorov this season, Tanev has posted a gaudy 59.24 xGF% and a 57.21 CF%. Those figures fell to 34.20 and 44.23, respectively, in his 31:19 next to Zadorov.
Tanev has spent 105:13 with Kylington at 5-on-5 this season and the results have been stellar. The Flames have controlled 64.86% of the expected goals, 61.11% of the shot attempts, and 71.59% of the scoring chances with those two players on the ice together.
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Through a half-decade with the Flames organization, Kylington has passed through waivers, been made a healthy scratch countless times, and toiled on the taxi squad for nearly an entire season.
Those days of uncertainty are over. Kylington has emerged as a legitimate difference-maker at the NHL level and needs to remain next to Tanev in the Flames’ top four for the foreseeable future. (He’d probably also look good on a power-play unit).
At this time, it makes sense to start looking at Kylington’s next contract. He’ll be a 25-year-old restricted free agent at the end of the season.
The Flames would be smart to explore locking Kylington down before he becomes too costly to keep.
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