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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Can Bear and Yamamoto Do It Again?

The 2019/20 regular season was the best the Oilers had since 2016/17 when they made the postseason. A big reason why they were able to outperform expectations this past year is that they got contributions from players they weren’t expecting to and they had a pair of young players take big steps forward.

Both Ethan Bear and Kailer Yamamoto took the leap from being AHL prospects to establishing themselves as productive and impactful NHLers and without them, the Oilers likely wouldn’t have been near the top of the Pacific Division when the season was paused.

Looking at their roster for next season, they’re going to need both Bear and Yamamoto to prove that last season was not a fluke. That can be a hard thing for a second-year player to do, so how likely is it that the Oilers two sophomore players can once again be impactful NHLers? Here’s my take:

Kailer Yamamoto

Feb 16, 2020; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Edmonton Oilers right wing Kailer Yamamoto (56) celebrates his second period goal against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena.

I was not very high on Yamamoto heading into the 2019/20 season but he made me eat my words rather quickly after the Oilers called him up to the big club. He ended up scoring 26 points in 27 games while riding shotgun with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. What’s even more impressive is that 24 of those 26 points were scored at even-strength. He wasn’t just milking a bunch of powerplay points, he was finding ways to produce offence at 5v5.

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Points aside, Yamamoto was one of the best Oilers when it comes to creating chaos on the forecheck. His ability to force turnovers was a huge reason why the line he was on was one of the best in the NHL from January onwards.

His play around the net was exceptional as well. Despite the fact he’s listed at just 5’8 and 155 pounds, he is not afraid of going right to the blue paint. In fact, not only is he willing to go to tough areas, he’s incredibly effective in tight. Out of his 11 goals, two of them came from right inside the crease with seven others coming from below the hash marks.

So what are reasonable expectations for Yamamoto next season? Well, I personally think it would be foolish to expect him to score close to a point a game. Even if he plays the entire season in the Oilers top-six, the fact that he barely gets any powerplay time will hurt his point production. It’s also worth noting that he shot 25% last season, so we should be expecting a bit of a drop off in his production.

If he plays most of the season with Leon Draisaitl, which I’m expecting he will, I think he’s capable of getting between 55-65 points next year. On top of just producing, if Yamamoto can continue to wreak havoc on the forecheck, force turnovers, and go hard to the net, it will create more space for Leon Draisaitl to work his magic and that line should be very successful next season. If the line is successful, then I can’t see a scenario where Oilers fans aren’t thrilled with Yamamoto at the end of the year.

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Ethan Bear

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear (74) during the game between the Stars and the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Without a doubt, Ethan Bear was the biggest surprise on the Oilers roster this past season. The Oilers have been desperately searching for a puck-moving, right-shot defenseman, that can handle top-four minutes for a long time and the fact that Bear developed into one so quickly was huge. Most people didn’t even think he would make the team out of camp and he ended up being one of their best defensemen.

No rookie defenseman averaged more time on ice than Bear, which is crazy considering two defensemen (Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes) were nominated for the Calder Trophy. His point totals weren’t very high since he didn’t get a lot of powerplay time, but he did finish fifth among rookie defensemen in even-strength points.

His even-strength possession numbers were all good considering the amount of time he spent on the ice and the competition he faced. He played against elite competition more than any other Oilers defenseman and his numbers when on the ice against elite competition were very good. (via Puck IQ)

Now, anyone who watched all 71 games that Bear played this past season will tell you that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There were rough games and tough stretches for the 23-year-old, but that happens with every player in the league. For the most part, he was incredibly effective.

Players don’t always develop in straight lines, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect the 23-year-old to take another huge step forward next season. It could certainly happen but my hope for Bear is that he can basically give the Oilers exactly what he did last season. I think that’s a very realistic expectation and honestly, even if his play slipped a little bit, I don’t think you could be mad at him.

If Bear resembles anything close to a top-four defenseman who can handle hard minutes and Yamamoto can be a 60-point winger who forces turnovers and plays like a legitimate top-six winger, then the Oilers should be thrilled with that. Getting solid contributions from those two will go a long way in them being a playoff team in 2020/21, just like it did last season.

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In fact, it won’t just be enough to get solid contributions from those two, they might need another player to take a massive step forward. That’s something I’ll take a look at next week!