The Chicago Blackhawks have added to their already deep defensive prospect pool on Thursday with the signing of free-agent blueliner Wyatt Kalynuk from the University of Wisconsin.
A seventh-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017, the defenseman became a free agent after electing to turn pro earlier this year and not signing with the Flyers within their 30-day rights window. Courted by teams across the league, Kalynuk has chosen to make Chicago his home with a two-year entry-level deal beginning next season.
A few months after being selected in the final round by the Flyers in 2017, Kalynuk stepped onto campus in Madison among a trio of freshman blueliners looking to make an impact (alongside fellow freshman and Blackhawks draft pick Joshua Ess). He quickly emerged as one of Wisconsin’s best defensemen and became the first rookie D-man in 25 years to score 25 points for the Badgers, including a team-leading 22 assists. Kalynuk was named the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and earned an honorable mention in All-Big Ten selections.
In 2018-19, he followed up his breakout campaign with a second straight 25-point season and nine goals, second in scoring for the Badgers. The sophomore earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors and was named Wisconsin’s most valuable player, an award that co-bears the name of Blackhawks Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios.
Last season, Kalynuk served as team captain and finished second in scoring with 28 points (7G, 21A) in 36 games before the Badgers were eliminated in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs. The 23-year-old was named to the All-Big Ten First Team in his final season on campus before deciding to turn pro.
“From day one as a freshman at Wisconsin, you could see the skating and the offensive talent but it’s more the defensive part of the game that usually needs (to be) polished or honed for young defensemen,” Blackhawks Assistant General Manager/Player Development Mark Eaton said. “I know (Associate Head Coach) Mark Osiecki, I know (Head Coach) Tony Granato at Wisconsin and I know kind of the defense that they preach and the responsibility that they want in players, so that’s the area of his game that you could see grow the most through the three years, the defensive habits and realizing that he’s a defenseman and taking care of his own zone and his defensive responsibilities before he jumps on the offensive attack. ”
“The asset of his that jumps out when you see him is his skating ability,” Eaton said. “Such a graceful, powerful skater and he can do it all, really. He can be a one-man breakout, he was quarterbacking the power play for three years at Wisconsin, good defensive habits, so just a good, well-rounded player that I think has a good opportunity to step in and contribute at the NHL level.”
According to Eaton, it’s easy to spot Kalynuk’s inner drive to get better just looking at his year-to-year improvement at Wisconsin.
“One of the things that we talk about with our prospects is the on-ice element is really only half of the equation,” he said. “The other half is character and how you approach the off-ice part of your game with training, mental skills, this or that and one of the areas that we really focus on is coachability. You have to continue to evolve as a player and continue to grow … For him to show that he can grow and that he’s coachable, it’s absolutely going to serve him well going forward.”
The tools are already there for the pro game, and if Eaton and his staff can do what they do best over the summer, it’s not a stretch to say that Kalynuk could be a candidate to step into Blackhawks’ lineup as soon as next season.
“(Blackhawks SVP/GM) Stan (Bowman) says it and all GMs say it, you don’t hand out jobs in the summertime, but if he does the right stuff over the summer and comes in and has a good training camp next year, then there’s a real opportunity there for him to be in the Blackhawks starting lineup,” Eaton said. “For us, on the development in, we’re excited to get our hands on him and just kind of see where he is currently with his off-ice conditioning and his routine, for lack of a better word, to see how he goes about his daily business as a professional now and see where we can help him fine-tune certain areas to better his chances of being in that starting lineup.”
Prior to signing his first NHL contract, Kalynuk suited up for his hometown Virden Oil Capitals during the 2013-14 season before moving on to play three years in the United States Hockey League.