From his season debut with the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 31, 2019, to when the 2019-20 NHL season came to a premature end on Mar. 11, 2020, Kailer Yamamoto racked up 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 games.
Then aged 21, the diminutive winger who had been recalled from the American Hockey League joined Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to form a dynamite trio that propelled the Oilers on a 17-9-4 run. In 328 even-strength minutes together, they scored 30 goals and gave up just nine. No other line in the league was remotely close to their goals-for rate of 77%.
That magical 10-week stretch became the stuff of legend in Oil Country. But now, less than two years later, it’s all starting to seem like a myth.
Yamamoto’s Slump Dates Back to Last Season
In 27 games this season, Yamamoto has five goals and one assist: That’s 20 fewer points than he had over the same number of games in 2019-20.
Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Yamamoto has 13 goals and 14 assists in 79 games. He has only 21 points in his last 72 regular-season games and went a stretch of 32 games spanning the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons with just one goal.
Yamamoto’s latest slump finds him with only one point over Edmonton’s last 10 games, and incredibly he hasn’t recorded a single shot on goal in the last six contests.
Yamamoto Has Not Delivered Despite Elite Linemates
Yamamoto’s lackluster numbers are conspicuous given that he continues to play with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. That’s the 2020 Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner and current NHL goals leader, Draisaitl, and 2011 No. 1 overall pick who ranks top 15 in the league in assists this season, Nugent-Hopkins. And if he’s not playing with those two, Yamamoto is probably with Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman. That’s the greatest player on the planet, McDavid, and multi-time 20-goal scorer Hyman.
How Yamamoto has generated such little output while surrounded by such elite talent boggles the mind. And yet, despite Yamamoto’s struggles, Oilers coach Dave Tippett has steadfastly kept the 2017 first-round draft pick (22nd overall) in Edmonton’s top six.
Maybe Edmonton’s bench boss believes that Yamamoto will break out again as he did in 2019-20. It could be that Tippett feels that if Yamamoto is given just a bit more time, the 5-foot-8 forward can become the 20-25 goal, 50-60 point producer that so many envisioned of him.
There was hope in Oil Country that the Yamamoto who had a miserable 2020-21 campaign was the exception and that the Yamamoto who took the NHL by storm in 2019-20 was the rule. But one-third of the way through the 2021-22 season, it’s starting to look like the reverse may be true.
Oilers’ Struggles Have Put Yamamoto in Spotlight
There wasn’t as big concern over Yamamoto’s performance when the Oilers were winning early and often, opening the season with nine victories in their first 10 games and climbing to 11 games over .500, at 16-5-0, after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 1.
But the Oilers have since gone into the tank, losing six straight games by an average margin of 2.5 goals. Their most recent defeat, 5-1 at home to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday (Dec. 14), particularly stung.
Edmonton’s offense has completely dried up, with only six goals in the last five games. The usually unstoppable Draisaitl and McDavid are both in mini-slumps, and no one else on the Oilers has stepped up to help carry the load until the two superstars return to form.
The Oilers’ inability to score has cast a searchlight upon their lineup, making it impossible to ignore the second-line winger who right now can’t even put a puck on an opposing goalie, much less bury the biscuit behind said netminder.
Yamamoto has many admirable qualities. No one cares more or tries harder than the product of Spokane, Wash. That’s why when he ended his extended scoring drought last month, the Oilers’ bench exploded while the Rogers Place faithful erupted in a touching display of genuine happiness for him.
There could be a valuable role for Yamamoto on this team, but right now, that can be only in the bottom six, perhaps as an energizer on the third line, checking and chipping in with the occasional goal. It’s certainly not playing 15-plus minutes a night with uber-talented linemates on a line that needs to generate goals, of which he so rarely contributes. Yamamoto has had ample opportunities to prove himself worthy of this slot and has simply not met the standard.
Edmonton’s Top Lines Need to be Shuffled
What does a top-six without Yamamoto look like? It may be a fluid combination of lines, utilizing the versatility of players like Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and winger Warren Foegele to find the right alignment that can provide a one-two punch. To be honest, the solution may not exist on the roster as presently assembled, but time is long past due to try something different.
Maybe the legend that foretold two winters ago does come true down the line. After all, Yamamoto is still just 23. But the Oilers of today can no longer afford to have him on their second line, especially as they look to break one of their worst losing streaks in years when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rogers Place on Thursday (Dec. 16).
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.