The focal point of the Calgary Flames pre-season was always destined to revolve around the blue line.
With two new faces and several young hopefuls jockeying to try filling the shoes of departed Mark Giordano by committee, there promised to be plenty of interesting pairings throughout camp.
However, few could have predicted one of the central figures in Darryl Sutter’s search for his top defenders would be Oliver Kylington.
For years, the 24-year-old has been the organization’s forgotten man – the classic tweener: dominant in the minor leagues, yet unable to gain footing at the highest level.
Unclaimed on waivers before the start of last season so he could be demoted to the Flames AHL affiliate, it appeared the second rounder was just a step or two removed from being written out of the organization.
Enter Darryl Sutter, who is determined to find out this fall what the organization has – or doesn’t have – in the slick skating Swede.
As part of his quest to find the perfect mix to fill seven defensive slots, Sutter has thrust Kylington into a pre-season audition he had likely given up dreaming of years ago.
He's now the most intriguing development in camp.
Quarterbacking the second power-play unit on Friday as the lone defenceman, Kylington led all defenders in penalty killing time in the Flames’ 4-1 triumph over the Canucks.
Moving the puck well and creating two good scoring chances with point blasts, the evening ended with him taking a bow as the game’s third star.
This came just 48 hours after being the Flames minute-leader in a 4-3 shootout loss to Seattle in which he got a chance to put his speed and creativity on display throughout overtime.
“The three-on-three game can fit me well – I like to skate, I like to move the puck,” said Kylington.
“Just trying to do what I’m good at and help our team to win. I’m just trying to make the best out of every situation I get.”
Suiting up for just eight NHL games last season and 48 the year before that, Kylington has largely played as a little-used sixth man when he isn’t positioned in the press box.
With his offensive upside also comes a knock as someone prone to making significant defensive mistakes – the type Sutter won’t put up with.
That problem has been alleviated the last two outings by pairing him alongside the team’s top defender, Chris Tanev.
That won’t last, as the veteran is destined to start the season alongside either Noah Hanifin or Nikita Zadorov. However, it has allowed Kylington to use his instincts up front, with the knowledge he has backup if things go sideways.
“We need mobility back there,” said Sutter when asked about Kylington, a lefty whose stock is bolstered by the fact he can play on either side.
“Guys like that are fighting to be in your top six. By playing games he’s getting an opportunity to do that, and if he’s not he’s not. (The fact that he played again Friday) means we’re happy with him.”
Drafted just seven spots behind Andersson in the 2015 draft, the two have taken radically different paths since dominating together in Stockton just four years ago.
Andersson started playing top-line minutes last season, while Kylington’s development has been stalled by several factors, including the bubble and the lack of a preseason last season.
Juuso Valimaki, the Flames’ first round pick in 2017, quickly surpassed Kylington on the organizational depth chart – something Sutter has flipped on its ear since taking over midway through last season. It’s apparent the young Finn has yet to convince Sutter he’s ready to be counted on to play regularly at the speed of today’s NHL.
The top four is almost certainly etched in stone as Noah Hanifin, Tanev, Andersson and Nikita Zadorov, who had a solid, physical outing Friday.
Would the coach really consider supplanting Valimaki for Kylington to open the season?
Can Kylington be as effective, free-wheeling and trustworthy without Tanev by his side?
Given his experience, physical presence and contract (he was signed for $1.95 million this season) Erik Gudbranson is likely to open the season as the third pair mainstay, assuming his right hand is okay after using it to pummel Zack MacEwen Friday.
Will he play alongside Valimaki, Kylington or Connor Mackey, who had a huge hit and a beautiful assist Friday to make the battle even tighter?
Or might the coach be simply trying to seed those three as seventh and eighth men behind Michael Stone, who Sutter found comfort in using to round out last season?
The team’s defensive picture is likely to get a little clearer after each of the last four remaining preseason games.
Great news for Flames fans, as Johnny Gaudreau was flying on Friday, scoring once, adding an assist and firing seven shots on goal as the game’s obvious first star. He’s clearly a highly motivated man with plenty on the line this season as a pending unrestricted free agent. All eyes will be on him throughout the season, as he and the club try to decide what his future holds.
Jacob Markstrom made his first start of the season, allowing just one goal on 15 shots over two periods, before giving way to top goalie prospect Dustin Wolf, who looked comfortable stopping all seven shots he faced. The win was the first in four preseason games for the Flames.
A young Flames squad heads to Kent, Washington Saturday to play Seattle.