Oilers’ Yamamoto Off to Strong Start in 2020-21

The start to the season has been far from perfect for the Edmonton Oilers. The team has not played well, and many players have underperformed.
But a player who has gotten off to a strong start is 22-year-old Kailer Yamamoto. The right winger has done very well since joining the Oilers from the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League (AHL) in December 2019. He has scored 32 points in 34 games and shown that you can succeed in the NHL even if you are a small player.

Yamamoto Made Great Success in 2019-20

It’s Dec. 31, 2019, and we’re at Rogers Place in Edmonton. The spectators have experienced a strange game, to say the least. The Oilers had a 6-0 lead, but their opponents this evening, the New York Rangers, have almost miraculously managed to get back in the game by scoring five straight goals. Rangers have pulled their goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for an extra attacker in a last desperate attempt to get the sixth goal.

But with a little more than a minute left of the game, the Rangers lose the puck in the middle of an attack, and it is picked up by a new player in the Oilers lineup. The player’s name is Kailer Yamamoto, and he has spent the first part of the season in Bakersfield in the AHL. He plays the puck to his teammate Jujhar Khaira who quickly passes it back to the young forward who makes no mistake. He scores an empty-net goal in his first NHL game of the season, and the Oilers finally manage to put the game away.

Kailer Yamamoto Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto has been one of the Oilers’ best players this season (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The goal was the young right winger’s first point of the season, but far from the last. He was very successful for the rest of the way by scoring 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 27 games. Oilers coach Dave Tippett has made a genius move by recalling Yamamoto from the AHL.

Yamamoto Has Shown That Size Doesn’t Matter to Succeed in the NHL

Yamamoto is not a typical NHL player. He is 5-foot-8 and weighs 153 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the NHL. There was a time when a general manager would not give a thought to drafting such a small player. But times are changing. For the past 20 years, players like Martin St. Louis, 5-foot 8, and Johnny Gaudreau, 5 foot-9, have been successful in the NHL, despite their size. Yamamoto is another example of how small players can succeed in the league.

Yamamoto started playing hockey early. At the age of three, he learned to skate and handle a puck and a hockey stick. His teacher was none other than Debbie Johnson, the mother of NHL player Tyler Johnson. (from ‘Spokane’s Kailer and Keanu Yamamoto forge lasting bond through hockey,’ Spokesman Review, 04/13/2017) The Tampa Bay Lightning forward, who is eight years older, grew up in the same place and played junior hockey for Spokane of the Western Hockey League (WHL) just like Yamamoto. Johnson has been a great role model for him over the years. Not least by showing that you can succeed as a hockey player even if you are smaller in stature.

“He told me that I have to work hard every day because there are always guys coming up the ladder trying to take his spot. Being a smaller guy, you have to make sure you’re working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else, ” Yamamoto said after being drafted by the Edmonton Oilers as number 22 overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.

Kailer Yamamoto
Kailer Yamamoto, 2017 NHL Draft, June 23rd. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In 2016-17, Yamamoto had scored 99 points in the WHL, finishing sixth in points, and was named to the Western Conference Second All-Star Team. He had a 1.52 points-per-game average, which was the highest of any draft-eligible player from the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in 2016-17.

There were early signs that Yamamoto would succeed in the NHL despite his size. But it has taken him a few years to become a full-fledged NHL player. During his first two seasons, the 22-year-old scored a total of 5 points in 26 games, and in 2018-19, he played mostly for the Condors. He also started the 2019-20 season in the AHL before being recalled by the Oilers ahead of the game against the Rangers on New Year’s Eve 2019.

Draisaitl Has Praised Yamamoto

Since the Oilers recalled Yamamoto in 2019-20, he has clearly shown that size does not matter. At least not if you are as skilled as he is. Something that has helped is that he has played in the same line as Leon Draisaitl, a partnership that has worked very well. Draisaitl said last week that he is impressed with the continued development of his linemate.

“He’s a lot of fun to play with, make plays, and wins so many battles for being a little guy. It’s pretty impressive and fun to watch,” Draisaitl said.

And it has, to say the least, been a successful collaboration. The line with Yamamoto, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins managed to score 108 points last season in the 27 games they played together during the regular season.

Yamamoto has said that his teammates helped him and has made it much easier to succeed in the NHL. This season, however, Tippett has chosen to break up the line. Nugent-Hopkins now plays in the same line as Connor McDavid, and the new addition Dominik Kahun plays together with Draisaitl and Yamamoto. This decision has received a lot of criticism from Oilers fans during the tough start to the season.

Yamamoto Has Been One of the Oilers’ Best Players This Season

Many have asked themselves whether Yamamoto will continue to produce points this year as well. So far, he has not disappointed anyone. The Oilers have had a tough start to the season, but the young winger has continued to deliver on the ice.

Already in the first game of the season against the Vancouver Canucks, Yamamoto showed that he would be a player to be reckoned with for the Oilers again this year when he scored a great one-timer goal after a pass from Draisaitl.

And he has continued to produce points after that. In Sunday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, he scored the important game-tying goal to make it 3-3 after receiving a hard pass from McDavid. He has scored six points in the first seven games of the season (three goals and three assists). The only players who have scored more points are Draisaitl and McDavid. But Yamamoto has not only contributed to the offense. He has played great defensively as well. With 14 blocked shots, he is one of the best in the NHL. And he has rightly been praised by head coach Tippett.

“He’s excellent; he’s really played well … It’s remarkable how many things he can disrupt from the other team,” Tippett told Sportsnet a few days ago.

It’s hard not to agree with Tippett. Yamamoto has been one of the Oilers’ best players so far, and he has shown that he will be a good NHL player for many years to come. Not bad for a player at just 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds. Hopefully, more players can step forward and perform at the same level as him. It is needed if the Oilers are to succeed this season.