Wyatt Kalynuk vividly recalls the night of Jan. 21, 2018.
His University of Wisconsin team faced Notre Dame, which entered the night ranked No. 1 in the country, in a showcase game at the United Center.
Kalynuk ended up scoring a beautiful end-to-end goal as the Badgers roared to a 5-0 upset win in front of a crowd of 9,313.
“I didn’t really know that much about the Hawks at the time,” Kalynuk said recently. “But when everyone started cheering during the anthem, it was pretty cool standing there on the blue line — I got chills, it was just crazy loud.”
“It’s something I’ll always remember.”
If Kalynuk will always remember that moment in college, the 23-year-old will surely also always remember July 16, 2020 — the day his first NHL contract was officially announced.
And by signing with the Blackhawks, he gave himself good odds of hearing that anthem many, many times in the future.
That wasn’t always the direction Kalynuk seemed to be headed. The defenseman was drafted by the Flyers in the 2017 seventh round and remained a Philadelphia prospect throughout his past three seasons at Wisconsin.
He elected not to sign with the Flyers this summer before their rights to him expired, though.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business,” he said. “If anyone has the opportunity to hear from every NHL team rather than just be locked in with one, they’d probably do the same thing. I have nothing bad to say about them.”
After electing free agency, Kalynuk narrowed his initially lengthy list of NHL team suitors to six, then three, then picked the Hawks after a Zoom call with general manager Stan Bowman.
“For me, there’s an opportunity for me to step in and earn my spot right away on the left side [of the defense],” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you go in the NHL, you’re going to have to battle...to earn your spot. But in Chicago, I have a legitimate chance of stepping in.”
Beyond the undoubtedly wide-open nature of the Hawks’ defense, Kalynuk also enjoyed a number of natural connections to the Hawks.
He’s friends with Rob Facca, the Hawks’ newly promoted head USA amateur scout, who recruited Kalynuk to originally commit to Michigan Tech out of high school in Manitoba. He played at the United Center several times, including that iconic 2018 win, with the Badgers. And Mark Osiecki, Wisconsin’s defensive coach, was previously an assistant with the Rockford IceHogs.
“Wyatt always wanted to improve, always wanted to understand the defensive side from the red line back,” Osiecki said recently, raving about the defenseman he helped mold. “One of his best qualities is that he’s just so coachable. He always wanted to learn.”
Kalynuk is a clear-cut offensive defenseman, with excellent vision and puck-moving abilities. He finished with 19 goals and 59 assists in 110 career games with the Badgers, good for an impressive 0.71 points-per-game average.
Indeed, he’s so fast and smooth that “skating” has become virtually synonymous with “Kalynuk” within weeks of his signing.
“My biggest strength always has been my skating,” Kalynuk said. “I’m at my best when the puck is on my stick, whether that be moving the puck, putting it in transition or clearing the puck when I need to.”
“His skating is probably his top asset,” Osiecki said. “It’s coupled: his skating is elite, but the way he thinks allows him to even look and play quicker.”
“His best attribute probably would be his mobility, his skating,” Bowman said. “We’ve got a lot of young defensemen, but looking at his skill set, he’s pretty unique with his offensive capability as a left-hand shot.”
Kalynuk worked hard with Osiecki to improve defensively during college, watching extensive video of all of his games as well as the games of NHL defensemen he could emulate.
He developed his leadership skills, serving as the team captain this past season.
He’s also currently trying to put more weight and muscle mass onto his 6-foot-1, 181-pound frame by staying and working out in Madison during the pandemic.
“It’s been the same thing for me since I was in juniors: still trying to get a little heavier and just learning the defensive side a little more,” Kalynuk said. “I’ve come a long way since my freshman year here, just learning little things.”
“As he moved up in the levels, his awareness was much better [that] it’s not going to be all offense and he’s got to be a well-rounded player,” Osiecki said. “Wyatt did a really good job with that: always wanted to improve, always wanted to understand the defensive side from the red line back.”
The Hawks seem particularly excited in Kalynuk because of his handedness, as Bowman mentioned. He’d theoretically fit well into a future depth chart of Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and Alec Regula on the right side and Nicolas Beaudin, Lucas Carlsson and Kalynuk on the left.
They won’t get to start integrating him and testing his NHL readiness until the playoffs end, however, since his three-year entry-level contract doesn’t go into effect until the 2020-21 season. Kalynuk said he’s been in talks with Hawks management about scheduling his move south to Illinois.
Osiecki, for one, believes Kalynuk will prove himself ready quickly.
“He’s pretty close,” he said. “He thinks at a high level. He can skate at a high level. Now it’s just understanding the kind of players you’re going to be playing with and against.”