It was just two seasons ago that Kailer Yamamoto made the jump directly to the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, he outplayed Jesse Puljujarvi – considered the team’s prized prospect at the time – and found a home in the top six straight out of training camp. At 5-foot-8 and slightly more than 150 pounds, Yamamoto was out to prove size didn’t matter if you had the skill to make up for it.
But the honeymoon was short lived. Yamamoto was returned to the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs after posting three points in nine games. The Oilers didn’t want to burn a year of his entry-level contract, not when they weren’t sure he’d have significant NHL impact. That left Yamamoto somewhere in the middle: too good to play against his major junior peers, but ineligible for life in the AHL. No happy medium. And his situation didn’t improve in 2018-19 when, after again making the Oilers out of camp, he registered two points in 17 games and found himself plummeting down the Oilers’ depth chart. Beyond a brief call-up to the big club, that led to a season spent on the farm, which is where Yamamoto began the 2019-20 campaign.
Just before the dawn of the new decade, however, he found himself on the way back to the NHL, called up by the Oilers on Dec. 29, and in the four since he has seemingly found his place alongside Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on Edmonton’s second line. With two goals and three points in four games, his play has been consistent and effective, and the same work ethic that led him to standout status in the hard-hitting WHL despite his diminutive stature has been evident in his efforts since his NHL arrival this season. Despite being the smallest player on the Oilers, he has found a way to bring some jump to the lineup, and his the secondary-scoring boost he’s helped provide has played a part in the Oilers’ 3-0-1 record with Yamamoto in the lineup, a record which includes big wins over Eastern Conference giants Boston and Toronto. Yamamoto’s line has connected for seven goals and 15 points in that span.
“I’ve learned that he’s a smart, really good player. He plays the game the right way, he’s on the right side of the puck, makes good plays,” coach Dave Tippett said on Monday. “He uses his size well for what he is. People would look and say he’s a little guy, but the way he gets around the game, the way he competes, the way he uses his body to protect pucks, it’s not an issue with him.”
The added benefit of Yamamoto’s play, at least since his recall, is that it has allowed the Oilers to stretch their lineup. Though they’ve been stapled together for much of the past two seasons, the goal in Edmonton has long been to split Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to create a two-headed monster down the middle. Yamamoto’s up-tempo, high-skill game has complemented Draisaitl well and aided in the success of the current splitting of the Oilers’ top two scorers. It’s also been a boon for Yamamoto, who had previously spent time skating on lines with former Oilers heavies such as Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon. The Draisaitl pairing is a much better fit.
“He’s been great. He’s a lot of fun to play with,” Draisaitl said. “He’s a little guy, but he’s feisty. He gets in there. Does a lot of little things that a lot of people probably don’t really recognize. He hunts pucks like crazy. It’s been fun and hopefully we can keep it going.”
“He’s giving us a bit of balance there,” Tippett added. “Leon likes playing with him, and that’s a good sign…when you add a guy to the lineup, and is a regular player and contributes, that makes you a better team.”
Whether this is the start of something or whether he ends back down with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors before the month is over is to be seen. But Yamamoto’s current turn with the Oilers just feels a little different. This time, he looks like he belongs, his additional development time rounding out his game and adding elements to his game. The Oilers are in a fight for a post-season position, as well, and any bit of additional scoring punch will help.
So far, Yamamoto is delivering. The next challenge is remaining consistent. And so long as Tippett continues to like Yamamoto’s game, there’s reason to believe this stay with the Oilers will be permanent.
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