Sometimes I like to go back to my notes on draft picks to see what scouts were saying about them before they were selected. This seemed particularly relevant once the Edmonton Oilers sent Jesse Puljujarvi down to AHL Bakersfield, while 2017 first-rounder Kailer Yamamoto remained. Yamamoto has been, by all accounts, thriving in the pre-season. Five games, five goals (plus an assist) – not bad for an undersized kid who didn’t make the cut for Team USA’s world junior squad last year. But the same could be said about Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and that kid may be linemates with Patrick Kane this season. In fact, there’s a nice correlation between the two youngsters. Here’s what one scout said about Yamamoto last season:
“Opportunistic player. You don’t notice him, but then he’s got three points on the night. Not overly physical. He gets to the quiet areas. The question is, will he be an F1 all the time?”
“F1” meaning top-line forward. Yamamoto first raised eyebrows in the pre-season when Oilers coach Todd McLellan put him on a line with Connor McDavid and Patrick Maroon, replacing Puljujarvi in the process. Yamamoto proved he could hang with Edmonton’s savior and this leads me to a point about how the Oilers have played this situation the right way: McLellan put Yamamoto in a position to succeed and the youngster has, so far, rewarded the team with results.
Breaking into the NHL at 19 (Yamamoto’s late September birthday meant he couldn’t be drafted until this past summer) is not easy, especially when you’re listed at 5-foot-8 and 154 pounds. When you’re coming straight from the draft after being picked 22nd overall? It’s downright impressive.
The 2017 draft class is already shaping up to be a weird one. Not only do you have Yamamoto at No. 22, but Owen Tippett (10th overall) is going to make the Florida Panthers roster, while the New York Rangers’ second selection, Filip Chytil (21st overall), is hanging in Manhattan. The same could be said for the St. Louis Blues and their second first-rounder, Klim Kostin (31st overall).
But that’s what happens in a “weak” draft – teams fall in love with certain players and capitalize on the lack of consensus around the league (Florida and Tippett may be the best example). I heard pre-draft that Edmonton was high on Yamamoto and I’m sure there was more than a few subtle fist pumps at the Oilers’ table when he was still on the board at No. 22.
Will he play with McDavid this year? That’s certainly not a given, but we know he can and that’s positive. We also know that he scored while playing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins against Carolina and that may have been just as important: it’s proof that Yamamoto was not simply a passenger with McDavid.
Yamamoto’s quick ascent is also a warning to Puljujarvi; the big young Finn needs to make the most out of his time in Bakersfield. It was mildly shocking when Puljujarvi, selected fourth overall in 2016, was sent down by Edmonton last year – not so much because of his pedigree, but because it was warranted.
Now, Puljujarvi has to contend with Yamamoto ahead of him on the depth chart. Both got to play with McDavid; one outshined the other. It’s a great competition for the Oilers to have in the future – and trouble for the rest of the league if this team somehow gets more dangerous on the offensive end.