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With long-time captain and No. 1 defenceman Mark Giordano joining the Seattle Kraken, a big opportunity opened up for 24-year-old Oliver Kylington to finally grab a big role on the Calgary Flames' blueline.
Fourteen games and roughly 17 percent of the way into the season, Kylington has seized that opportunity with glowing results.
Kylington has played about 85 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with defensive stalwart Chris Tanev and the pair has controlled chances and goals to a very high degree. Expected goals with the pairing on the ice are 66 percent for the Flames and they’ve outscored the opposition 11-7 in that time.
Intuitively, the pairing makes sense in a stylistic sense. Tanev is very solid defensively and is always in the right spot to support his partner, while Kylington has great skill and speed, which he often uses to jump up into the rush. The results at both ends of the ice have been better than the team could’ve reasonably hoped for.
Heading into this season, Kylington had 16 points in 95 career regular season games with 15 of them coming at 5-on-5. Just 14 games into the 2021-22 season, Kylington already has 10 points with nine of them coming at 5-on-5, which leads the league among defenders. Each of his two goals have displayed the high-end talent Kylington possesses.
The first occurred off a nice touch pass from Tanev to Kylington in stride coming into the zone, before he walked in deep and ripped a wrister off the bar and in.
The second was on a rush both started and ended by Kylington, as he intercepted a John Tavares pass to the slot in the defensive zone before taking off up the ice with Johnny Gaudreau. Kylington played a nice give-and-go with Gaudreau while darting up the middle of the ice and ended up in alone on net, where his speed backed up goaltender Jack Campbell before Kylington made a move to the backhand for the finish.
Kylington won’t continue to pick up points on 82 percent of the goals that are scored while he’s on the ice, but it’s still a testament to his involvement in the offence and the way he's pushing play. The defender has also been good at staying out of the box, taking only four penalty minutes with just two of them coming at 5-on-5.
Kylington and Tanev play off each other extremely well, supporting one another and always hopping into the middle of the ice to defend it when the other has to vacate the area. Kylington’s speed has been noticeable in shutting down the rush, and he's seemingly always capable of closing an attacking forward off to the boards.
The result so far has been that the pairing hasn’t been stuck in its own zone for any extended period of time very often. They’ve been the most effective pairing on one of the best teams in the league so far, by whatever metric you want to look at.
Once the Flames get the puck back in the defensive zone, Kylington is usually heavily involved in exiting the zone with possession. The defender is both a very good passer and he is not shy to use his legs to jump up into the rush to facilitate the breakout. By Corey Sznajder’s Game Score metric, which tracks shots, passes, zone entries and zone exits, Kylington rates out as the best defender on the team while Tanev ranks second.
The pairing has been so efficient with the puck that they each rank ahead of notable forwards like Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Blake Coleman. It’s one thing to defend well and prevent consistent chances against, but it’s all the more impressive when a defence pairing is just as capable at pushing the puck back up ice into the offensive zone.
The easiest way to prevent good chances against is to keep the puck in the offensive zone and 200 feet away from your own net. Kylington does that not only by being very active on breakouts, but also in the offensive zone. His skating ability allows him to operate in the offensive zone with the confidence that he’ll be able to recover if the play gets behind him. He’s also picked his spots pretty well, diving deep into the zone only when he’s sure he’s going to get a chance to play the puck.
Another thing that provides Kylington opportunities to do so is his forwards always being aware of when he might dive in and being there to cover for him high in the zone.
Kylington’s well-timed pinches have led directly to a few goals for his team and assists for him already this season.
The one thing that’s been absent for Kylington so far has been opportunity on special teams. His skill set sure seems well-suited for an eventual role on the power play and I think that opportunity will come for him at some point. As mentioned earlier, he’s the most active defender on the team with the puck on his stick and he’s not shy about pushing offence. His speed should also help him recover in those situations when he does get caught, just like it does at even strength.
The Flames' top unit has been decent with Rasmus Andersson running the point, so Kylington would likely take Noah Hanifin’s spot on the second unit. Hanifin is fine, but I think Kylington has the potential to bring a lot more to that group with his talents.
It hasn’t been perfect, though, as Kylington made a costly turnover against the Leafs after his electric goal, which led to William Nylander’s game-tying tally. It fit the narrative that’s followed Kylington over his young career and it’s the same as virtually any offensively active young defenceman. The prevailing notion is that Kylington is very good and highly talented, but has a propensity to make “the big mistake.”
The blunder was a simple one on a flubbed attempted clear, but it happened to go in the net, which makes it all the more memorable. It seems he’s earned the benefit of the doubt and a long leash so far, especially with limited options available to take his spot, but we’re going to find out very soon whether or not head coach Darryl Sutter agrees with that sentiment.
*data via evolving-hockey.com
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