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Photo Credit: NHL.COM

Little Big Man

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.

BIG TALK

June 23, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Kailer Yamamoto poses for photos after being selected as the number twenty-two overall pick to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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

Victoria Royal Regan Nagy (24) battles Spokane Chief Kailer Yamamoto (17) in game two of the Victoria Royals seven game Western Hockey League Playoff quarterfinal series at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia Canada on March 26, 2016. The Royals won game one 4-3 and lead the series 2 games to 0.

“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.

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  • Spydyr

    Sure a handful of small guys have success in the NHL. The other six hundred plus are larger men. At the twenty second pick taking a chance is not the worst thing.They might hit a home run, they might strike out. I hope he can carry his scoring forward to the NHL and perform well against much larger players. It just does not happen all that often.

    • OnDaWagon

      Moot point. What percentage of drafted players any year actually make a career in the NHL? I would like an answer actually, because i don’t know.
      It’s not always the size of the dog.

  • T Ambrosini

    Plenty other diminutive players have made their mark in the NHL… Stan Mikita, Dennis Maruk, and my childhood favorite, Yvan Cournoyer to name a few more. I am surprised he went in the first round and, rest assured, I’ll be pulling for him to have a productive and long NHL career

  • I always remember in 1991 when Edmonton could have picked Ray Whitney , their 80’s Stick Boy, but choose a 230 pounder instead who never played in the NHL while Whitney was the highest point getter in that whole draft. Simply because the Wizard had heart and was in phenomenal shape.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      the Oilers actually briefly had Whitney in the 97/98 season and after an unspectacular 1 goal and 4 points in 9 games, he was traded to Florida where he had 32 goals and 61 points in 68 games and, as we Oiler fans have seemingly been doing ever since, went ape spit ! he then went on to have many more successful years of scoring in the NHL. the Oilers had him and gave up on him too soon. shame.

  • Muddy

    What people need to realize is that his size has been relevant his entire hockey career to this point. Guys in the NHL didn’t come from Mars they came from the same leagues this kid is dominating in. He’ll be playing against the same players he is now just on a higher level. Marty St. Louis also needs to be in this discussion, maybe the best little men the league has ever seen. I will admit I am really looking forward to seeing him in camp standing next to Kassian, Maroon and Lucic.

  • Serious Gord

    A risky pick no doubt especially if as was stated on another post he is the shortest player ever to be picked in the first round.

    It also makes me wonder when he is from the WHL – the oil have made so many mistakes falling in love with players who play in their backyard.

    But it is encouraging that small players still have a future in the league. Ten years ago that was far from certain.

    The hallmark of almost all successful small players has been that they possess tremendous natural talent and a heart that is far bigger than the average-sized player. The latter is often reflected in outstanding physical conditioning (st.louis et al) I trust (hope?) the oil scouts did their homework.

  • Hemi

    The nay sayers are always going to be negative. It is in their nature. Just like Yamamoto, his nature is to drive hard. Somethings are meant to change and others are meant to be honed. If he is as driven as much as he appears to be, a diamond in the rough for sure. Looking forward to seeing him in Oil silks in a couple of years. Well done Oil Management!

  • toprightcorner

    When you compete hard every shift and have heart, skill will always find a way to win. He is a more skilled, better skater and more competitive Tyler Johnson. Thats a huge win!

  • Stormflurry

    What really impresses me for his size is that he is relentless on the puck. He doesn’t care how big you are, he will go into the corners and take some abuse then strip the puck away from you. Plus he can really shoot a one-timer as well. I really hope he can make it in the NHL. Going to have to go to some Oil Kings games when the Chiefs roll into town now!

  • Heschultzhescores

    Of course we have to give the kid a chance, but did we all forget what we just saw in playoff hockey. Can he survive that type of hacking and crosschecking that goes uncalled? It’s not that he’s not super-talented, it’s just that the league is allowing all kinds of dangerous stick work during the playoffs. That has to change before smaller players can survive the daily punishment allowed by the dirty players like Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler, Manson, and on and on.

  • FlamesFanOtherCity

    Before you get too far down the road of comparing him to Gaudreau, you should probably compare Yamamoto to a more relevant player, one that plays in the WHL and a similar age and size. Matthew Phillips. Pint sized with sick hands. 50g 40a. 5’6″ and about 140. He went in the 6th round last year. Both players have a similar chance at making the NHL. They might even play against each other in the WJC this winter.

    Maybe not the exact same player qualities, but probably more reasonable than project him to be another Gaudreau.

      • FlamesFanOtherCity

        Remind me where Gaudreau was taken? Draft pedigree has little to do with it.
        When I suggested you compare him to Phillips, you should look at the points and age.
        How much more dominant was Yamamoto over Phillips?

  • HelloYamamoto

    Spokane Chiefs winger Kailer Yamamoto was another name that appeared prominently in testing results. The speedy flank finished in the top-10 six different times with four of those instances featuring top-two outcomes. Yamamoto’s day was headlined by a first place finish in the Aerobic Fitness VO2Max Testing.

  • Anton CP

    I’m surprised that no one mentioned Brian Gionta.

    But anyway, considering about how many undersized players are doing so well in the league that I don’t think his size will be an issue if he can play at elite level. Due to the size that quite a few players got overlooked like both Gaudreau and Marchand were 3rd round, Arvidson was 4th round, Atkinson was 6th round, and both Johnson and Sheary weren’t even drafted. I mean, in 190 WHL games that Yamamoto scored 227 points with 84 goals which means he should be able to produce offensively at elite level. Who knows? Maybe he will even be ahead of Puljujarvi on depth chart with his ability.

  • Dobbler

    I’m actually pretty optimistic about this kid. I think that performing well enough, despite his size, to get ranked as high as he did, speaks volumes. How high would have have been ranked if he were 6’2″ 210lbs? Top 10? Probably. Top 5? Maybe.

  • madjam

    Vancouver drafts the smallest player in Finish P.Palmu at 181 in draft . He is 5’6″ , but a stocky 172 lbs. . He is 19 , but had 40 goals and 98 points in 62 games this season for Owen Sound , even better than production of Suziki and 3 less games than Yamamoto . Be fun to see how they each develop over time .

  • Marshall Law

    It’s kind of incredible that the same people who trashed the organization for drafting “smurfs” for years are now saying that this guy is a can’t miss.

    I like the pick. It’s a good gamble at that stage of the draft, but let’s not pretend that his size isn’t going to be an obstacle when he starts playing against pros. He’s 5 ‘7’. That’s not small; it’s tiny.

    He oozes skill and seems to have the right mindset, so he’ll have a better shot than most, but the size factor is not insignificant.

  • Connor'sGotHart

    You goof! They do the same spin story on flamesnation or anywhere else. Don’t think being a Flamer that you can hold yourself in a higher regard.

  • McDavid's Comet

    You’re paying way too much attention to what Oiler fans talk about and their situational reactions. If you don’t like it, beat it. Go back to fLamesnation and drink the bitter koolaid you all seem to enjoy. Way too much oiler-envy…….