Flyers general manager Ron Hextall talks about it all the time leading up to the NHL draft.
While everyone focuses on the first round, Hextall places equal emphasis on the mid-to-late rounds. Draft picks are lottery tickets and the later they are, the odds of hitting are longer.
Just before last month’s draft, Hextall again stressed how “friggin’ important” seventh-round draft picks are in constructing hockey teams, and then one turned heads at development camp.
“Wyatt Kalynuk, you guys probably don’t know much about him,” Hextall said. “He’s a smooth-skating defenseman at Wisconsin. He’s a late-round pick and he’s taken a step. You watch the way he skates, the way he reads the game, the way he passes, [it’s impressive].”
Kalynuk was the 196th overall pick in the 2017 draft or the 10th selection of the seventh round. He went to the University of Wisconsin but took an unorthodox path to the NCAA.
Born in Virden, Manitoba, Kalynuk didn’t take the road more often traveled by Canadian hockey players. Instead of playing in the CHL, Kalynuk opted for the USHL and eventually, college.
“When I was 16, I had the option to go to the Western Hockey League,” Kalynuk said recently. “But at that time, I was too small. I knew I needed more time to develop, so I played a year of junior hockey at 16 in Manitoba and then I moved down to the UHSL when I was 17.
“The whole idea was to give myself more time to develop. For me, I developed a little later than some guys. I didn’t really need to prove myself, I just had an opportunity to play a big role.”
During his freshman season at Wisconsin, Kalynuk went from a seventh-round pick to an intriguing prospect worth paying attention to as he progresses through Division I hockey.
Kalynuk played all 37 games for the Badgers and led the team with 22 assists. He became the first Wisconsin blueliner to score 25 or more points in their first season since Ulvis Katlaps posted 35 points in 1992-93. His 25 points were fourth on the Badgers and second among freshmen defensemen in the Big Ten. He was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and shared the Mark Johnson Rookie of the Year award with Wisconsin forward Linus Weissbach.
The Badgers finished sixth in the Big Ten during the 2017-18 season and lost to the University of Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. But Kalynuk was certainly a bright spot.
“I thought I had a decent year,” Kalynuk said. “I think coming in, I had pretty high expectations for myself. I knew bad things were going to happen, but when they did, I just tried to brush them off and keep moving forward. … I just tried to take it all in stride.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I wouldn’t say I was expecting to do that well either. I just tried to do my best. I got a good opportunity when I got there and did my best to take advantage.”
What drew Kalynuk to Wisconsin over other programs was equal part coaching staff and opportunity to play, but the lefty defenseman did suggest the Badgers’ history was a factor too.
With Tony Granato as the head coach — Granato coached Team USA during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics — and Mark Osiecki as the defensive coach, Kalynuk wasn’t as drawn to the Badgers’ style of play than he was the program’s ability to churn out NHL players.
“Mark Osiecki is the defensive coach there, he’s sent a lot of guys to the NHL,” Kalynuk said. “He’s really good at what he does. Him along with Tony Granato … if you look around college hockey, you can’t get much better than that. They’re pretty good coaches, to say the least.”
Osiecki served as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 2004 through 2010 before he got his first college head coaching gig at Ohio State. He returned the Badgers’ staff in 2016.
Throughout his first stint coaching at his alma mater, Osiecki built his reputation of developing defensemen. On the 2010 national title team alone, the Badgers had Ryan McDonagh, Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner, Brendan Smith, Cody Goloubef and John Ramage. Other NHLers to play for Osiecki at Wisconsin include Tom Gilbert, Davis Drewiske and Jamie McBain.
“He takes the time,” Kalynuk said of Osiecki. “We go out early almost every practice 20 minutes before everyone else. He just loves doing it. He focuses on a lot of little details that maybe other coaches wouldn’t, so I think he just loves it. That’s probably why he’s so good at it. I’ve never played for a coach who loves coaching as much as he does.”