Late first round draft picks, who stand well under six feet tall don’t usually garner too much attention during their first NHL training camps, but that’s exactly what Kailer Yamamoto did this past fall.
The Spokane native came into Oilers camp and grabbed a roster spot, something that exceeded the 19-year-olds original expectations, “I was kind of going into my first NHL camp, just getting my feet a little wet, and showing them that I can play” said Yamamoto during our recent conversation, “I would have never expected to play nine games but really fortunate that I did and really glad for that experience”.
It was a whirlwind month and a half and things happened fast, but there was one moment during his NHL stint that still sticks in Yamamoto’s memory, “My first ever game when all the guys made me go out on the ice, no helmet, for warm-ups and take a couple laps. That was one of the moments where I thought wow, this is really happening now”.
It was a great story at the beginning of the season, but once the regular season hit, it was clear Yamamoto just wasn’t ready to be a full-time NHLer. After nine games, the Oilers sent him down and it was expected that he would return to the dominant form that saw him put up 99 points in the WHL last year. That didn’t happen.
He rejoined his hometown Spokane Chiefs on November 10th and struggled to get on the scoresheet, scoring twice and adding ten assists in 13 games before heading to Buffalo for the World Juniors.Still respectable numbers, but nowhere close to what was expected.
The combination of joining the Chiefs over a month into the year and then having to leave for the World Juniors was a lot. Now, Yamamoto is excited to put some of those distractions behind him and simply focus on finding his game and helping the Chiefs go on a playoff run.
“Traveling all around, it’s a little bit tough to get some roots in the ground. Now that I have two months just to focus on Spokane hockey it’s going to be really nice and I really think it’s going to help me” said Yamamoto.
Since returning from the World Juniors, Yamamoto has been torching his WHL opposition, posting seven goals and twelve assists in just eight games. It’s clear he’s found his groove once again.
“Hockey has to do a lot with confidence, if you’re a confident player you’re not gonna second guess yourself and you’re going to make the plays that you normally make and if you’re struggling with confidence you’re going to second guess yourself a lot.” he explained, “For me, one of my biggest things is having that confidence. Every play I make, making sure it’s a confident one”.
It was interesting to hear him talk about confidence levels and how they can affect a player. It reminded of the stories surrounding his pre-draft interview with Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, where he reportedly told Chiarelli that if the Oilers didn’t pick him he would “come back and haunt” the team down the road.
Kailer confirmed that he did indeed say that and expanded on the role confidence plays in his game, “Being a smaller kid you got to have a lot of confidence going on the ice”. It’s clear he has a bit of swagger both on and off the ice.
For now, he’s focused on doing everything he can to help the Chiefs secure a playoff spot but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about the opportunity that lies ahead with the Oilers, “There could be a couple spots open next year and really motivates me to work that much harder and push that extra little bit to get one of those spots and make the Oilers”.
One of those spots that may be open is alongside Connor McDavid, which is a spot where Yamamoto thinks he can fit into long-term, “He plays with a lot of speed, a lot of skill and I think I do the same thing,” he explained, “I think the biggest thing for me is just maintaining that confidence once I get up there and once I can do that”.
The rookie did get a decent good look with #97 during his stint with the team, something he reflected on during our talk, “It was unbelievable how fast he is, how fast is hands are, the plays he makes how quick he does everything and how he does all the little things”.
Before Yamamoto was sent down, the Oilers coaching staff let him know what they want to see him improve on, “Making plays off the wall, getting the puck out of the zone in the d-zone. Working on my shot velocity, I know they wanted me to get a harder shot you know shooting through sticks and stuff like that. Those two main things” the 19-year-old relayed to me.
He knows what he has to do, and he knows the opportunity is there for the taking, so does Kailer Yamamoto think he can be an NHL player at this time next year?
“I think so, I’m hoping so, I’m going to do everything I can from now until then to make that team and crack the lineup and eventually stay there”
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