Of course it’s a small sample size – when you’re five-foot eight and 153 pounds, your whole career is a small sample size – and things could change three weeks or three games from now, but it looks to me like Kailer Yamamoto has found the right timing and circumstance to make some noise with the Edmonton Oilers.
On a night Connor McDavid scored one of the prettiest goals you will ever see in a 6-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Yamamoto scored his second goal since being called up from the Bakersfield Condors four games ago and again looked right at home alongside Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
With coach Dave Tippett having split up McDavid and Draisaitl to generate more balanced scoring with his top two lines, Yamamoto has helped make it work since his recall from the AHL with a couple of goals and an assist. As important, he’s looked more ready to stick than in any of his previous regular season stints with the Oilers since turning pro in 2017-18.
We’ve seen numbers from Yamamoto before. In the 2017-18 pre-season, he scored 5-2-7 in six games, but was sent back to the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL after nine games in which he managed just 0-3-3. He was even better in the 2018-19 pre-season, scoring 6-3-9 in six games, but got a ticket to Bakersfield after 17 games in which he produced just 1-1-2. At 21, he looks different, as does his opportunity to prove he belongs.
READY TO STICK?
As diminutive as he is, Yamamoto has always had to rely on being smarter, quicker and more tenacious than the next guy to get things done. In his first two looks with the Oilers, his strong suits didn’t translate to the NHL level – at least not beyond pre-season. So far it has alongside Draisaitl and RNH.
“They’re two unbelievable players so any time you can get by you obviously want to stick and do anything you can to stick,” he said before facing the Maple Leafs. “I’m just more comfortable with the guys and I know what to expect . . . now coming into my third season, having played a couple of games, I’m more comfortable, more confident.”
He’s certainly made an impression on Draisaitl, who has seen him before, and on Tippett, who is getting his first look at the pint-sized winger. “He’s been great, a lot of fun to play with,” said Draisaitl. “He’s a little guy but he’s feisty. He gets in there. Does a lot of little things that a lot of people probably don’t really recognize.”
The impression he’s made on Tippett is more profound because if the Oilers are serious about becoming contenders, they simply can’t just throw McDavid and Draisaitl out together and expect them to carry the whole load. That’s been tried. It hasn’t worked. Splitting them up has been tried. Until now, that hasn’t worked for any length of time either.
THE RIGHT FIT
“Just a little more depth there,” Tippett said of having the luxury of two solid top lines since Yamamoto’s arrival. “Yamo coming in and giving us a guy who can make plays with Leon there. Who knows? Let’s be honest, three weeks from now or two weeks from now or three days from now, it might change, but right now those two lines are giving us nice balance. So far, so good.” Tippett’s entire post-game availability is here.
Like Tippett said, the window of opportunity for Yamamoto to show he belongs in that top-six mix could be three weeks or it could be three days, Either way, it’s open now and if Yamamoto can find a way to seize the chance, it’ll not only do wonders for him but for the Oilers. When you give the coach not only what he wants but what he needs, you tend to stick around.
THE HIGHLIGHT REEL
The greatest players in the game aren’t necessarily the most electrifying or dynamic in terms of lifting fans out of their seats, but, from where I sit, McDavid has changed that – his latest masterpiece being that goal against the Maple Leafs. Not only is McDavid the best player in the game, he’s the most dynamic.
I used to appreciate the on-ice vision and pure production of Wayne Gretzky, but while I consider him the greatest player ever, I never considered him the most electrifying. Mario Lemieux was a beast with that wingspan, but most dynamic? Not for me. Until McDavid came along, Pavel Bure was the most flat-out exciting game-breaker I’d ever seen in 50-plus years of watching hockey.
Not anymore. For me, McDavid took the title away from the Russian Rocket before this season even started, but that goal against Toronto was absolutely magnificent, another clip to add to a ridiculously good highlight reel.