I’ve always believed that size is a frame of mind as much as it is a matter of stature. It’s obvious that Kailer Yamamoto, who, as near as I can tell, is the smallest player ever selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, feels the same way. That’s good news for the Edmonton Oilers, who selected Yamamoto 22nd overall from the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL Friday.
All things being equal – hockey sense, offensive skill, willingness to compete, skating, commitment to conditioning and whatever other measures you value – bigger players win tie-breakers when it comes to NHL talent evaluators. Big guys get the benefit of the doubt. They always have and probably always will.
Sometimes, though, all those traits shine through in a smaller player like Yamamoto, a pocket rocket who stands just under five-foot-eight and weighs about 150 pounds, to such a degree that teams put the tape measure away. Oiler GM Peter Chiarelli and his scouting staff did that Friday. I’ve seen it before.
If Yamamoto hasn’t let stature get in the way of his rise through the hockey ranks – he had 99 points with the Chiefs last season — why should Chiarelli? Chiarelli has a history of building teams that are a blend of size and skill, a blueprint he has used again during his brief tenure in Edmonton. That makes Yamamoto look like a fit with the team Chiarelli has put together from where I sit.
Yamamoto wasn’t shy when he met with Chiarelli before the draft. The quote that grabbed headlines yesterday, in response to being asked why the Oilers should draft him, we know: “That’s a standard question you ask,” Chiarelli said. “I’ve never really heard this answer. He said, ‘Because (if you don’t) I’m going to come back and haunt you.’ He’s a pretty confident kid, and he backs it up with his play.”
Size bias isn’t as pronounced as it once was, but the truth is little guys like Yamamoto have to outperform equal or even lesser players of bigger stature just to get noticed. Back in 1984 I sat down with Cliff Ronning of the New Westminster Bruins. Ronning, five-foot-eight and 165 pounds, was coming off a 136-point season, good enough for sixth in WHL scoring. He had no idea when he’d be picked. Ronning ended up being drafted 134th by the St. Louis Blues. By the way, a little guy named Ray Ferraro won the scoring title that season with 192 points, including 108 goals. Ferraro, five-foot-nine, was a fifth-rounder in 1982.
Four years later, I was working at the Kamloops Daily News when Mark Recchi of the Blazers finished third in WHL scoring during the 1987-88 season with 154 points, leaving him behind only Joe Sakic and Theoren Fleury. I’ll never forget Recchi telling me, “I just want to get drafted.” Just want to get drafted? Recchi, a hair under five-foot-10, went 67th to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Check all the six-foot-plus guys who were taken ahead of Recchi in 1988 who never had anywhere near the career he did.
Jump ahead to today and, thankfully, smaller players are valued more now. There’s more room for them in the game with the way rule changes have opened things up. We need look just down the road to Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary. Might Yamamoto, surrounded by the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon in the group Chiarelli has assembled, turn out to be Edmonton’s version of Johnny Hockey? I think he might.
WHAT KAILER SAID
“I think when I’m playing, I need to have no fear in my game,” Yamamoto said. “I know the elite goal scorers all go to the dirty areas. It doesn’t matter how big they are. I try to emulate a lot of players like Mats Zuccarello. He lays the body all the time. I think it’s worked out.” No fear? That’s easier said than done when you weigh all of a buck-50, but Yamamoto hasn’t only talked the talk, he’s walked the walk to get this far.
“Kailer’s skill and grit is a real interesting package,” Chiarelli said of Yamamoto, who has played three seasons with the Chiefs. “He gets after it, he knocks guys off pucks. He is small, but he’s strong and has tremendous heart and skill. To me he really stood out.”
We won’t see Yamamoto in Oiler silks beyond pre-season this coming year. He’ll return for a fourth season in Spokane. At minimum, he’s two years away. If that’s the case, Yamamoto will keep doing what got him this far. “My goal next season is to make the Edmonton Oilers,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, then I want to be the leading goal scorer in the WHL. That’s my goal.”
History shows it’s a longer road to the NHL for the little guys, but we’ve seen players like Ferraro, Fleury, Ronning, Recchi and Gaudreau, to name just five, navigate it successfully over the years and make a name for themselves. Might Yamamoto be the next? Stay tuned.