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Oliver Kylington: Rise from the Ashes

Every team in the league had a chance to take on Oliver Kylington and his bargain-basement contract for free last season. He went unclaimed. Ditto in the expansion draft. While there are hiccups, he’s proving what a mistake that was.
Oliver Kylington

Yeah, but we’re willing to bet this Buddha guy never tossed a muffin up the middle of the ice in the defensive zone in the third period of a one-goal game. 

Because that’s enough to shatter anyone’s inner Zen – not to mention his $300 carbon-fiber stick. Much has been made of Oliver Kylington’s transformation from NHL waiver fodder to breakout defenseman, and the maturation process has been a vital part of that. But that journey to self-realization still hits the occasional bump, the way it did on a night in November when all of the good and all of the bad of Oliver Kylington were on full display.

With members of the Class of 2020 (inducted in 2021 because of COVID-19 delays) looking on in the Hall of Fame Game between Kylington’s Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 24-year-old blueliner broke the seal on a scoreless game in the third period when he gathered the puck in his own end and took off. Kylington started the rush, made a pass to Johnny Gaudreau, then cut hard to the net. Gaudreau sent the puck back to Kylington, who pulled it out of his feet at full speed and lifted a backhand over the sprawling Jack Campbell. Skilled play all around.

“And then I turned it over on the next play,” said Kylington, anticipating the next part of the story as it was retold to him. Well, not exactly the next play, but close enough. Less than eight minutes later, Kylington had the puck under duress and tried to make a play out of the zone, only to see the puck dribble off his stick, right to Alex Kerfoot, who passed to William Nylander, whose one-timer was tipped in by Ondrej Kase. Kylington was so upset with himself that he two-handed the crossbar with his stick. All of it was made worse by the fact the Flames lost the game in overtime, after which Kylington spoke of the contest through gritted teeth.

There would have been a time when a play like that would have deflated Kylington, and that time was as recently as last season. The 2020-21 campaign started with the Flames placing him on waivers, and it got worse when nobody took a chance on him. It got even more depressing when he spent most of the abbreviated season either as a healthy scratch or on the taxi squad, appearing in only eight games. By the time the Flames made him available to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, Kylington looked very much like a player who was not in Calgary’s plans, be they short- or long-term.

That not one other team was willing to pick up Kylington – who was on a one-year, two-way deal at the time – likely has more than a few executives leaving scuff marks on their designer suits from kicking themselves. Of course, there wasn’t much suggesting the 23-year-old Kylington would do what he is doing at the age of 24. The NHL doesn’t have a comeback player of the year award – the Masterton is sort of that, but not quite – but if it did, Kylington would be a shoo-in finalist. His development arc has taken a drastic upward trajectory.

Playing regularly with Chris Tanev, a sneaky-outstanding free-agent signing in 2020, Kylington skates meaningful minutes and makes a meaningful contribution. As of mid-

February, he led Flames’ defensemen in goals and was a top-15 blueliner in the NHL in points per 60 at 5-on-5. That reflects several things, not the least of which is the faith Flames coach Darryl Sutter has placed in him. Sutter lives with the occasional mistake, and instead of nailing him to the bench or banishing him to the press box, he keeps putting Kylington out there. Kylington, on the other hand, has matured in his mental approach to the game, which is entirely reasonable for a player entering his mid-20s. Not everybody is Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar or Miro Heiskanen. Most aren’t. Mastering the art of playing ‘D’ in the NHL might be one of the more difficult things for a young athlete in any sport to do.

This past off-season, Kylington made a conscious effort to put aside all the distractions and focus simply on doing everything within his control to turn his fortunes around. First, he didn’t worry about his contract, another one-year deal that pays him literally the lowest possible NHL salary ($750,000). He deliberately put it out of his mind that the Flames had deemed him to be an NHL defenseman for only one of out of every seven games last season, and that they went out and acquired Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson in the off-season. He worked out all summer with only one objective in mind: to do everything he possibly could to become an everyday NHL rearguard.

“I’ve always had a big, strong belief in myself,” Kylington said. “I just said to myself to not just let my emotions or anything drag me into that, to just really be in the moment and know that’s the only thing you can control. So I just prepared myself for an opportunity I knew was there for training camp. That was the only thing I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I was just thinking about training camp, do my best there, and just see where it takes me.”

Much of what Kylington is doing this season is because of that attitude. He won the Flames over with a strong pre-season and has been proving what many people thought all along, that all he needed was a sustained opportunity and he would be able to thrive in the best league in the world. And he has done that. A prime example was that game in Toronto. Rather than allow it to stick with him, Kylington followed that up with points in each of his next three games. The ice time has been steady, and so has his play. The mental errors happen less frequently, and the fact he led Calgary defensemen in giveaways was an indicator of how much he’s handling the puck now. “Before, if you’re making a play like that, you’re not playing the next game,” Kylington said. “Obviously, I don’t want to make plays like that, but you do sometimes in your career. You learn, and you want to be as effective as possible in trying to erase small errors in your game. I think that’s every player’s challenge.”

The two most critical people in that have been Sutter and Tanev. Sutter acknowledged the Flames needed Kylington’s mobility among their defensemen, and he’s been patient and encouraging. “For me, he’s been a great coach,” said Kylington of Sutter. “He’s very honest, and he cares a lot. For me, having that support system motivates me, but at the same time, I learn a lot from him, and it helps me. I’m grateful for that. He’s giving me an opportunity to do what I love, so you want to play good and be a good player for your teammates and yourself.”

Kylington says Tanev is by far the best defense partner he has ever had, doing for him in Calgary much of what he did for Quinn Hughes in Vancouver. As much as they complement each other on the ice, they could not be more different as people. Kylington is extroverted and gregarious, Tanev understated and quiet, with a wry sense of humor. The two have formed a bond off the ice, despite many of their interactions being rather one-sided. “Tany, he talks,” Kylington said, “but maybe he’s not a guy who drives the conversation.”

As a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, Kylington knows he has set himself up for a brighter future. The Flames have been on a season-long heater, of which Kylington has been a big part. Every player thinks about his contract, whether he admits it or not, but to get caught up in the possibilities is something Kylington is not inclined to do anymore. Instead, he’ll go back to Sweden this summer and train as he always does, with a twist. Kylington’s back story has been well-documented – in the early 1990s, his mother was shot in the arm while fleeing war-torn Eritrea and settled in Sweden, where she met Borje Kylington, Oliver’s father.

His parents have since divorced, and his father remarried. Kylington’s half-brother, Adrian, 13, is a budding sprinter, participating in and winning meets all over Sweden.

Kylington said Adrian reminds his father of him, with his dedication to training and his love to compete. “He recently ran 60 meters in 7.47 (seconds),” Kylington said, “and that’s very fast. I was really impressed when I saw that stat. I think he can add some stuff to our training group this summer, and it will be fun to see him train with us. I think he’ll beat us for sure. I told him this summer we have to do an 80-meter sprint to see who’s faster. I think he’s pretty close to beating me right now. I’m pretty curious to see what I can run.”

Even though he’s 11 years older than his brother, Oliver Kylington’s journey is also just getting started. And if the recent past is any indication, there are so many more places he’ll be able to go. 

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