From the moment the Edmonton Oilers used the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 Entry Draft to select Kailer Yamamoto, the youngster has become a fan-favourite across Oil Country. Despite having played just nine regular season games during his first go-round to start the 2017-18 campaign and no pro resume to speak of, there is arguably no player the masses want to see make the jump more and it’s easy to understand why.
Yamamoto has nine goals over the last two preseasons.
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) September 24, 2018
The former Spokane Chiefs standout may be diminutive in stature but he more than makes up for it on the talent side of the equation. An exceptional skater with a quick release, a nose for the net and a guy who has shown the ability to post some eye-popping numbers at the junior level. His high energy/agitating style of play rarely sits well with opponents but in a blue-collar market like Edmonton, it is the perfect package.
Yamamoto Continues to Impress
With the 2018-19 season only a couple of weeks from getting underway, the question everyone wants to be answered is whether or not Yamamoto starts the year with the big club. From a talent perspective, he is already among the Oilers most skilled forwards and should be a slam-dunk to make the roster as a regular from the drop of the puck. Seems simple enough but it’s more about whether or not he is the so-called “right fit” for this roster.
When we look at the potential right wing options on the club’s top three lines, there are really no surprises among the four names: Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie, Tobias Rieder and Yamamoto. In my mind, the wild card among the group is Rieder, as he plays either side effectively and could easily slide to left wing. In other words, barring a major hiccup, he is all but guaranteed to start the year inside the top nine but more on that in a bit.
Meaning it will come down to three guys for two spots. The sample size is small but when we combine Rattie’s five-point performance from a week ago with what he managed to accomplish playing alongside Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to closeout 2016-17, the former Portland Winterhawks star has earned a look-see on the club’s top line. So we are down to two names for one spot.
Earning a Roster Spot
Puljujarvi is a player Todd McLellan has handled with kid gloves to this point in his career but that will change this season. Though the head coach seems enamoured with the idea of pairing the big Finn with Ryan Strome to start the year, chances are he forces his way up the lineup as the season progresses. No question he has looked good through the early stages of camp but he yet to reach the level of that other guy in this race.
Yes, it is the pre-season and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. However, it’s as if the four goals and six points Yamamoto has posted are nothing more than an afterthought. The production is great but in this instance, it’s a small part of the story. The more impressive piece of the puzzle is the kid has been the Oilers best skater and most engaged player in all three games he has dressed and it hasn’t been particularly close.
Be it against the Calgary Flames “C squad” or a Winnipeg Jets lineup that was littered with nearly all of their top players, Yamamoto has delivered the same performance. Fully engaged and willing to do whatever necessary to be a difference maker on the ice and contributor on the scoresheet. A rarity at this time of year to be sure and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the guy standing behind the Oilers bench.
Todd McLellan is a Believer
The day after watching Yamamoto pot a pair against the Jets, McLellan was asked during a media scrum for his assessment on the youngster and his response spoke volumes.
Awfully strong…real strong…very much like last year. In fact, I would say it’s an improvement or better. He looks confident and I’m still amazed that our smallest player spends most of his time in and around the blue paint. He finds ways to score in that area, he knows when to arrive and what to do when he gets there and that’s a real good sign. He’s come to camp with a purpose of playing here and showing everybody he belongs and in my opinion, he has done that to this point.
Safe to say Yamamoto has made a lasting impression on his head coach and unless he falls flat on his face from here on out, the kid has all but secured himself a spot on this roster. So if you are like me, you have to be wondering how can four guys can fill three spots but it’s actually quite simple. If all four are good enough to make the team, something will need to give on the left side and the Oilers have the flexibility to make it happen.
As previously mentioned, Rieder can play either wing and as an added bonus, Yamamoto was used on the left side against the Jets and didn’t look the least bit out of place. Be it a slow start from Milan Lucic or underwhelming performances from the likes of Drake Caggiula or Jujhar Khaira, the door is wide open for anyone not named Nugent-Hopkins to be moved down the depth chart on the left side.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to options and thanks to the play of the kid wearing No. 56, the Edmonton Oilers could be forced into making some uncomfortable decisions in the not too distant future. Who knows, if all goes according to plan, we might be looking at a top six of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie and Kailer Yamamoto by season’s end.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.