Entering the Oilers training camp and preseason, the Oilers had very few jobs available. Andrej Sekera’s injury opened a door for a D-man to take the #7 spot on the roster as Eric Gryba moved up to the #6 slot. There were going to be some battles over who would play right wing on which line, but a veteran losing his spot seemed unlikely, especially when the Oilers announced Anton Slepyshev injured his ankle training and wouldn’t be available in the preseason.
However, Kailer Yamamoto’s five preseason goals, which leads the Oilers, have put him in the conversation. Or have they?
The great debate in Oilersnation is what will the Oilers do with Yamamoto?
The young man has lived up to scouting reports as a gifted offensive player who thinks the game well, creates turnovers and has a nose for the net. He has the attention of head coach Todd McLellan and in last night’s 6-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Yamamoto found himself on Connor McDavid’s right wing for the final 30 minutes. Yamamoto scored a PP goal, skating on the Oilers second PP unit (not with McDavid), and his insistence to show up on the scoresheet has many thinking he is in the conversation to start the season with McDavid.
I’ve learned over the years that preseason evaluations can often lead to premature expectations of players. I’ve seen many players perform well in the preseason, but once the intensity ramps up in the regular season they couldn’t keep up.
There hasn’t been one intense preseason game this season. Legitimate battles for pucks have been a rarity, and I’ve seen very few physical, grinding plays. Players have had more time and space to make plays, and the lack of overall effort and intensity make it extremely difficult to evaluate how new players will handle the rigors of the NHL.
Yamamoto can’t be punished for that. He’s played in the same games as others, and he’s found ways to get noticed and to produce goals and points. He’s shown he knows how to think the game, whether he is playing with Chris Kelly and Iiro Pakarinen, or lining up with McDavid and Patrick Maroon. I don’t think anyone questions his ability to process the game. He hasn’t been noticeably out of position or gone to the wrong areas on the ice.
The question is at age 19 (he turns 19 on Friday), can he handle the physical wear and tear of the NHL? Can he win battles versus veteran NHL players? It’s a more difficult question because of his stature. He is 5’8″ and 155 pounds. I’d focus more on strength versus weight, but you can’t overlook the challenges of playing in the NHL at that age.
We’ve seen many small players succeed in the NHL — Theo Fleury, Martin St.Louis and Johnny Gaudreau — but none were in the NHL at 19.
Fleury debuted at 20 after playing 36 games in the now-defunct IHL. Fleury was fiery and tenacious and highly skilled.
St.Louis was undrafted. He played 13 games when he was 23 years old and became a regular at 25 years of age with Tampa Bay, scoring 40 points in 78 games. He exploded at age 27 with 33 goals and 70 points and became a top scorer for the next decade.
Gaudreau was in college from ages 18-20, playing 40 games a season and working out regularly during the week trying to get stronger. He debuted in the NHL at 21 and he’s averaged 68 points/year in his first three seasons.
We’ve seen small players succeed, and I won’t be surprised if Yamamoto joins the diminutive club, however, I wouldn’t be rushing him. He will always give up size in battles, but he can overcome that with his smarts. He’s done it at every stage of his career thus far, so it won’t be new for him, but battling NHLers at 19 when you’re only 155 pounds and your strength isn’t at maximum output yet will be extremely difficult.
The Oilers could keep him and let him play nine regular season games and see how he performs. If he plays a 10th game they would burn a year of his entry level contract. I don’t see the benefit in doing that. History has proven very few players play at 19, and even fewer are impact players at 19.
What surprises me the most is how for years fans, media and bloggers questioned the Oilers rushing players, but many of those same people want Yamamoto here due to his preseason performance. I don’t believe Peter Chiarelli or Todd McLellan are caught up in the excitement. They are very happy with Yamamoto’s performance and McLellan said some positive comments about him last game, but I still believe they will err on the side of caution with Yamamoto.
I like how Yamamoto has put himself in the conversation. It shows how hungry he is and to date he hasn’t been intimidated. His future looks bright, but I don’t think the present is as dazzling.
The Oilers preseason games have been sloppy, lackadaisical and void of consistent battles along the boards and in front of the net. We know that will change when the game start to count. Milan Lucic summed up the preseason very well earlier in camp. “You know the games don’t mean much, but you still try to work on getting yourself ready. It is difficult at times, because the focus and intensity just isn’t there from different guys at different times.”
We’ve seen it both ways this preseason. When the Oilers went up 3-0 on the Flames at home last Monday, the effort and intensity evaporated. As much as people want it to remain high, it just doesn’t very often during the preseason. The Winnipeg Jets dressed a veteran lineup in Winnipeg last Wednesday, but they didn’t work hard. I’m not sure Dustin Byfuglien broke a sweat.
Last night the Oilers looked like a team wanting to exit the preseason as quick as possible. They did not match the work ethic of the Hurricanes. The entire team wasn’t “into it” and it showed. Frustrating, yes, but not unexpected after watching many years of preseason hockey.
It can be difficult to accurately analyze a player when the quality of competition the effort is not at a regular season level.
If the Oilers choose to keep Yamamoto to start the season, how does it impact the roster?
The Oilers will either keep 13 or 14 forwards.
McDavid, Maroon, Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Strome, Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu, Drake Caggiula and Jujhar Khaira will be on the roster. That leaves two or three spots, depending if they keep 13 or 14.
Caggiula doesn’t require waivers to be sent to the minors, but I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be on opening night roster. He has 2-2-4 in the preseason and McLellan has used him at all three forward spots and on both special teams in his first season.
So that leaves Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and Iiro Pakarinen. All three could be on the roster and the Oilers start the season with 14 forwards. Slepyshev didn’t skate with the main group this morning, so it is likely he starts the season on the IR.
That leaves seven spots for D-men.
Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Eric Gryba, Matt Benning, Darnell Nurse, and either Yohann Auvitu or Mark Fayne. Ryan Stanton hasn’t played since blocking a shot in Winnipeg last week and McLellan has mentioned he liked how he played in Winnipeg on numerous occasions. If he was healthy, the battle for the #7 job would be more intense. Fayne’s contract could work against him, not to mention his foot speed.
If they keep 14 forwards, and both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are here, it would be odd to have one of them in the pressbox, and I don’t see why both would slot in the right side ahead of either Caggiula or Strome on the right side.
The Oilers could easily keep Yamamoto on the roster to start, but when Slepyshev returns, they would either have to send Puljujarvi or Caggiula down, or expose Pakarinen to waivers. It wouldn’t be wise to potentially risk losing Pakarinen to waivers just so Yamamoto can stay for nine games. Pakarinen is a good depth forward, and if injuries occur he could be a good fill in.
I can understand if the Oilers keep him for a look in the regular season, but I don’t see any reason to keep him longer than nine games. I could see a scenario where he sticks with the team for the first seven games. He might not play in all of them, and when they return from their road trip on Saturday, October 21st, they could reassign him to Spokane and Yamamoto could play his first WHL game of the season in Edmonton versus the Oil Kings on Sunday October 22nd.
He would get a taste of the NHL, even though I don’t believe it is a necessity for a player to succeed in the future, and then join his WHL team in Edmonton and then onto games in Calgary, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.
The other benefit to sending him back this year is the Oilers would have three years of Yamamoto on his entry-level deal for the first three years of McDavid’s contract. Even if Yamamoto reached all his “A” bonuses, he’d only be a $1.775 million cap hit and would have produced 20 goals and 35 assists. They’d be ecstatic with the production to salary ratio.
What do you think the Oilers should do with Yamamoto?
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