The transition from high school or juniors to college hockey can be incredibly difficult, even for the most gifted players. The speed, physicality and talent in the college game is continuously increasing, and playing at a high level as a freshman amidst a transition to the style of play and daily routine is both demanding and ambitious.
Freshman defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk, however, has adjusted quickly. Halfway through his opening season, he has not only established himself as an impressive freshman, but simply as one of the best players on the whole Wisconsin roster.
“It’s incredible. He’s obviously a great D and a huge impact to our team already,” fellow freshman Sean Dhooghe said. “Being a young guy, he doesn't play like one. He came in, and if you were watching a game you wouldn't think he’s a freshman with the minutes he plays, the role he plays and the way he is as a player. It’s unbelievable.”
“He’s been outstanding,” head coach Tony Granato added. “I’m sure other coaches on other teams are looking at him going, ‘Wow, this is the first look we’ve had at him and he’s the real deal.’”
In an increasingly offensive game, flashy defensemen, like Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, seem to get the majority of fan’s recognition. Accordingly, solid defensemen who are smart and don’t make mistakes often get overlooked. But having an intelligent anchor like that on the back end is equally crucial, and that is what has made Kalynuk, a seventh round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2017 NHL Draft, so successful and important for the Badgers thus far this season.
Kalynuk joined the Badgers as a slightly older 20-year-old after playing two seasons in the United States Hockey League. The Wisconsin coaches and his teammates immediately saw that he had offensive capabilities, but mostly observed that he was a quiet, dependable skater that could be trusted to play sound, defensive hockey.
“He can be flashy when he needs to, but his game is really subtle,” Dhooghe said. “It’s sometimes things that fans don’t even notice, but we’re watching it on video all the time and talking about it in the locker room. Whether its winning a stick battle or a puck battle in the corner, or even just having a great stick on the blue line stopping a 3-on-2 rush, he’s constantly doing things right on the offensive and defensive side of the ice.”
Now, 23 games into the season, Kalynuk has demonstrated that stability repeatedly. With each contest, Kalynuk has exhibited impressive skating ability and smarts. Even more importantly, he has shown confidence and decisiveness with the puck, limiting turnovers and allowing the Badgers to be successful on the breakout and attacking the opponent’s zone.
“I think [his best attribute is] his poise with the puck. He doesn’t panic very much, which allows him to make plays and get out of sticky situations,” senior defense partner Jake Linhart said. “And definitely his skating too. You can tell right away he’s a very good skater, so that can help him get out of sticky situations too. He has a really long stick that allows him to keep good gaps, and if he gets beat he can recover.”
“He just makes really smart plays. He’s a very intelligent hockey player. It’s really unusual. There’s not many freshman that can just jump in and play that type of hockey,” Granato added. “The poise that he shows out there is what’s really remarkable.”
Kalynuk recognizes how important it is to be poised and thinks that it has been one of the main factors leading to his early collegiate success.
“I think I try to be as patient as I can with the puck, just waiting for things to open up,” he said. “I think it’s the big thing for the powerplay. Any guy that’s out there needs to be patient, they can’t force things, otherwise you are not going to shoot pucks or have lanes. So yeah, I think poise is one of my strengths.”
As the year has progressed and he has become more confident, however, Kalynuk is adding a more flashy, offensive side to his game. The freshman defenseman is now second on the team in points with 17 (one goal and 16 assists), and he leads all Big Ten defensemen in scoring in conference play.
“I think he has gained a lot of confidence since the beginning,” junior Will Johnson said. “He is showing he is an offensive defenseman, and a really skilled one. I think putting him on the point on the powerplay has really helped him develop, because he just runs it.”
As Johnson stated, that confidence is manifested in potentially his most impressive role: running the powerplay. Since opening day, Kalynuk has quarterbacked the first powerplay unit, playing at the middle of the point, shooting around blockers and distributing the puck to open forwards. Being on the top powerplay unit is impressive for a freshman, but running the unit is another level entirely for someone experiencing college speed for the first time.
“You look at the responsibility he’s taken on, being a powerplay guy, with us jumping on and saying, ‘Hey, you’re gonna run a powerplay unit.’ That pretty much says you’re not really just a freshman,” Granato said.
“It’s impressive. I think he is doing it at almost at a pro level already,” Dhooghe said. “We have been on the powerplay together and I have been following his lead there. He’s captured just about every role you can play on a hockey team, and he’s managing to do it every weekend. It’s awesome.”
Of course, like any player, Kalynuk acknowledges he still has room to improve and grow.
“In our zone, like in front of the net, I think I could improve a little bit,” he said. “Dealing with bigger and stronger guys, I need to adjust. That’s probably the biggest thing I need to work on.”
Net front presence and awareness, though, will come with time and experience. Although the contributions that Kalynuk has made on the powerplay, penalty kill and in the defensive zone may go unnoticed by fans, it has not been taken for granted by his teammates and coaches, who have compared him to past Badger greats like Justin Schultz, now of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who played three standout years at Wisconsin and finished his career among the program leaders in scoring by a defenseman.
“I have heard a couple guys compare him to Schultz, who [quarterbacked the powerplay] here too,” Linhart said. “I’ve watched Justin Schultz in the NHL and here when he was at Wisconsin, and I definitely see that in [Kalynuk].”
And while his teammates see how good he is already, they believe he is just scratching the surface of his potential.
“His ceiling is definitely high,” Linhart added. “I think the next couple years, working with [assistant coach Mark Osiecki] and Tony and everyone, he’s going to be a lot better, and he’s already really good. He is going to be really successful.”
“It sets the bar for the other freshman D,” Johnson said. “They have to know that what he’s doing is possible and that they can do it too.”