I still have my doubts rookie Kailer Yamamoto is ready for NHL primetime with the Edmonton Oilers, despite being one of the best storylines of pre-season (because he hasn’t looked the least bit out of place). I’ve seen enough, though, to know I want to see him get a crack against some actual NHL line-ups. At the very least, I think he’s earned that much.
Yamamoto, who celebrates his 19th birthday Friday, didn’t play in a 6-2 waltz over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, but the pint-sized prospect has created a real buzz with four goals and an assist in the three games he has played. Yamamoto survived another roster cut on the weekend, which has people wondering if he’s ready to make the jump from the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL.
Despite his diminutive stature, the five-foot-eight (maybe), 150-something pound right winger has turned some heads with his skill level, nose for the puck and willingness to go to the tough areas. The thing is, he hasn’t yet done it against a full NHL roster. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it, only that he hasn’t. I’d like to see him get that chance to start the season — if for no other reason than to get a better handle on where he’s actually at.
“No,” Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan answered when asked by Terry Jones if he’d seen enough in pre-season to make definitive calls on how ready Yamamoto and sophomore Jesse Puljujarvi are or aren’t. “We haven’t been there yet. It’s been good for them to face this level of competition to this point because it gives them time to feel confident. It gives them time to feel like they belong . . . “
If he gets a handful of games to start the regular season, maybe Yamamoto will push the issue and continue to shine. More likely than that, he’ll come down to earth a bit when the games and the rosters are real. That’s OK. There isn’t one negative in having him return to Spokane and continue to grow and get stronger if that’s how it plays out. The wrench in that look-see scenario is where to play him? If he’s not in the top-nine, what’s the point?
RUSSELL AND BENNING
We know that the Oilers are going to start the season without Andrej Sekera while he recovers from knee surgery and there’s no doubt that’ll test depth on the blueline. Through the two games he’s played, I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Kris Russell, who looks more comfortable back playing the left side, where he’ll start the season alongside Matt Benning as the second pairing. McLellan has liked what he’s seen from Russell and Benning, too.
“I thought in the games he’s played he’s been tremendous,” McLellan said of Russell after the victory over the Jets. “He’s been on his toes, moving pucks, closing really quick, doing some really good things. I thought Matt Benning, in both games he played, he waded his way in a little bit and then got better as the night went on. Matt does slide the (blue) line well offensively. He gets a lot of his pucks through to the net. They’re not necessarily slappers, but good, quick wristers that find seams to the net. You could see that tonight and he’s effective when he’s doing it.”
Obviously, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are going to log the most and the toughest minutes once the regular season begins, but with Sekera out, McLellan will be leaning on Russell and Benning a lot — even more than you’d like at this point in Benning’s career. If Benning, 23, is going to get the kind of minutes it looks like he will with just 62 NHL games on his resume, the best place for him under the circumstances is beside Russell, a veteran of 641 games.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Still with Russell, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a big bump in his offensive numbers this season. Russell (and Benning) will get an opportunity to pick up some of the slack left by Sekera. While I don’t think we’ll see a return to the production Russell managed with Calgary in 2014-15 (4-30-34), I can see him in the range of 20-25 points. He had just 1-12-13 last season.
- There’s no disputing that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has too big a ticket at $6 million per to be a third-line centre, but it’s not my money, so let’s see what he can do behind Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the three-spot down the middle. That position was so devoid of actual NHL players too often in recent years, I’ll happily take some depth there until GM Pete Chiarelli gets busy.
- If there’s a better fourth-line centre in the league than Mark Letestu, I can’t think who it is. Specifically, I can’t think of another fourth-line guy who is as good an option on the power play as Letestu. While he’s 32, Letestu might prove to be the guy who makes RNH expendable at some point.