It goes without saying that Kailer Yamamoto has been terrific in the three games he’s played with the Edmonton Oilers this pre-season. For me, it’s how he’s impressed coach Todd McLellan and the three new sets of eyes on his coaching staff that’ll have Yamamoto celebrating his 20th birthday Sunday on a team charter bound for Europe.
With two more goals in a 5-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Sunday, Yamamoto has 4-2-6 in his second pre-season with the Oilers. The diminutive winger from the Spokane Chiefs has managed that without relying on Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Yamamoto potted his pair Sunday playing on the left wing, not on the right side, where there’s a crowd looking for roster spots.
Just as important in how Yamamoto has forced his way into a seat on the charter and onto the opening night roster has been his play beyond the numbers. He’s playing special teams. He’s gone to the tough spots, retrieved pucks, set screens in traffic and shown a more well-rounded game than he did last pre-season, when he also put up numbers. On the edge of 20, Yamamoto is flat-out a better player. That hasn’t been lost on McLellan, Trent Yawney, Manny Viveiros and Glen Gulutzan.
“His rookie camp was just average but maybe he was just anxious to get out with the NHL group,” McLellan said Sunday. “Since we’ve started camp, he’s been tremendous. He’s been a really good penalty-killer and it’s interesting that when you talk to the new coaches, (he) continues to grow on them . . . the language they’re using is there’s no liability in his game. He’s as good defensively as he is offensively.”
THIS TIME AROUND
No liability in his game – we didn’t hear that a year ago. Yamamoto got a nine-game look-see to start last season after impressing in pre-season, but was returned to Spokane after managing three assists. He came to camp this time slotted in as competing for a job on right wing, where Ty Rattie and Jesse Puljujarvi have also put in very strong bids for roster spots. Then, there’s Tobias Rieder and Zack Kassian.
While McLellan hasn’t given me a peek at the depth chart in his office, my sense is that Yamamoto came into this camp in deep behind Rattie, Puljujarvi and Rieder for a top-nine spot and not well-suited to a fourth-line role. That’s partly because of his age and that, generally speaking, showing patience with a young player like this rather than forcing him along makes sense. Give the kid a look and then off to Bakersfield he goes. Well, not so fast.
“I think I’m in my groove right now,” Yamamoto told reporters Sunday. “You have to go to the dirty areas to get those goals. Ever since I’ve been a younger player that’s where I’ve known you had to go. Good things happen there. I think it’s more playing the right way, offensively and defensively. You have to do everything right.”
“I trusted him a lot last year and what we’re seeing is he’s a tremendous penalty-killer and smart on the power play,” said McLellan. “Those are two situations he can get some extra ice-time. Five-on-five when you look at scoring chances he may be the smallest guy on our team with the most touches around the blue-paint. He’s either very smart or he’s got a lot of tenacity in the paint who should be there.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
When the coach likes you as a power play option and on the penalty kill, when you show him tenacity and smarts in the tough areas and you show you can play either wing if need be, you’re increasing your chances to land a job well beyond whatever skill-set box they might have had you pencilled in for. Yamamoto has done that. Yes, it’s a small sample size – that’s what training camp and pre-season is. It’s the same for everybody.
I’m not sure Yamamoto even has to land a spot on the right side to stick beyond the trip to Europe and the road games to start the season. Does he displace Rieder there? Can he move to the left side and be a top-nine option? I think so on both counts. Of course, what we’ve seen so far doesn’t guarantee success once the regular season begins. Same goes for Rattie and Puljujarvi. History tells us that much.
That said, as of right now, today, I’ve got Yamamoto making the roster. The question, and the votes that matter, is if McLellan and his coaching staff feel the same going into games with Vancouver, Arizona and Calgary before the team jumps that jet. From where I sit, Yamamoto has to play his way off the team now, not onto it.