After a difficult season in 2021, Ken Holland opted to bring back Kailer Yamamoto on a one-year, show-me deal.
There were high expectations for Yamamoto in 2021. He was called up from the Bakersfield Condors in late December of 2019 and played a key role in the Oilers saving their season in the early parts of 2020. Yamamoto formed an elite line alongside Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and chipped in 11 goals and 26 points over the course of 27 games.
At this point, it appeared the No. 22 overall pick from the 2017 draft had arrived. Unfortunately, development isn’t always linear. Yamamoto took a step back in 2021, as he scored just eight goals and 21 points over the course of 52 games. He started off the season quite well, scoring seven points in 11 games in January, but Yamamoto’s production fell off a cliff after that, as he scored 14 points in 41 games from February on.
Yamamoto’s entry-level contract expired that summer and he and the Oilers ultimately came to terms on a one-year contract worth $1.175 million in mid-September.
The 2021-22 season appeared to be more of the same for Yamamoto. His production through 52 games in 2021-22 was virtually identical to his production in the COVID-shortened 2021 season, as he had 10 goals and 19 points at the end of February. But from March onward, Yamamoto performed like the player who burst onto the scene after the mid-season recall in 2019-20, as he scored 10 goals and 22 points in Edmonton’s final 29 games of the season.
At a glance, these results paint Yamamoto as inconsistent and streaky, but that might not actually be the case. It seems that playing for Jay Woodcroft was a game-changer for Yamamoto, as his production exploded after the team’s coaching change. Yamamoto didn’t fare well in Dave Tippett’s system, but it seems he turned a corner playing for a coach who’s willing to give more leash to young, offensively-oriented players.
So, what now? Yamamoto is again a restricted free agent and he’ll surely be looking for a raise after producing on his show-me deal. What can we expect from Yamamoto’s next contract?
A comparable from Detroit…
To find clues as to how Holland might approach the Yamamoto situation, we can go back to how he handled a familiar face from his Detroit Red Wings days.
The Red Wings selected Andreas Athanasiou in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and, like Yamamoto, he didn’t become a full-time NHLer until the third season of his entry-level contract. Athanasiou spent the entirety of his first professional season in the AHL in 2014-15 and then split time between the two levels in 2015-16, scoring 16 points in 26 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins and 14 points in 37 games with the Red Wings.
In 2016-17, Athanasiou cracked the Wings out of training camp and remained with the team the rest of the way, save for a stretch in November in which he missed a few weeks to injury. Athanasiou scored 18 goals and 29 points over 64 games, which was pretty much in line with what he produced in his rookie season but over a longer sample.
Holland and the Wings were in a difficult salary cap bind that following summer and there was never any chance of Athanasiou cashing in. He held out through training camp and didn’t ink a deal until October when the team was already into its regular season. The contract was a one-year, show-me deal worth $1,387,500.
Athanasiou had a decent showing in 2017-18, as he scored 16 goals and 33 points over 71 games. While he showed flashes of brilliance, he was criticized for streaky play and not producing for large periods of time. He held arbitration rights the following summer but Holland was able to find a deal much quicker this time around, as the two sides agreed to a two-year contract worth $3 million annually in July. This was the deal that Athanasiou was on when Steve Yzerman traded him to the Oilers in February of 2020.
The situations are fairly similar for Holland. Like Athanasiou, Yamamoto inked a one-year, show-me deal following his entry-level contract, and, like the Red Wings, the Oilers are a cap-strapped team looking to get young talent signed to cheap contracts. Given Holland opted to go two years with Athanasiou in a similar context, we can assume the same will happen this summer with Yamamoto.
Can the Oilers afford both?
There’s been plenty of talk that one of Yamamoto or Jesse Puljujarvi will be gone by the time the 2022-23 season begins. Over at Daily Faceoff, Frank Seravalli listed Yamamoto/Puljujarvi on his early off-season Trade Bait board…
Scoop: It’s a safe bet that one of these two players will not be returning to the Oilers next season. Both are fan favorites. But both require new deals, likely both raises, and GM Ken Holland acknowledged that Edmonton will have to watch every dollar. “Am I willing to trade some assets in a deal that will make us better? Yes I am,” Holland said Wednesday. Edmonton’s preference would likely be to keep Yamamoto, but he would bring the bigger return.
As Seravalli notes, Yamamoto is the player that has more trade value between him and Puljujarvi. Though Puljujarvi was the higher draft pick, Yamamoto has three more years of team control while Puljujarvi has just two and he’s produced better boxcar numbers than the big Finn has.
That production is also the reason that Yamamoto would be able to command more going through arbitration than Puljujarvi would. Puljujarvi’s excellent underlying numbers won’t make him a great case in arbitration, which uses old-school statistics to determine the value of a player. Yamamoto, on the other hand, would be presented as a 20-goal, 40-point scorer, which would surely net him a nice raise.
The goal here is obviously to keep both players. Yamamoto and Puljujarvi are young and talented, they’ve been a part of the team’s growth over the past few seasons, and they’re likely to continue to improve playing for Jay Woodcroft. But the Oilers are tight to the salary cap ceiling and need to improve their roster in other areas in order to take another step forward.
If Yamamoto has the ability to command more on the trade market and at the negotiation table, he might be the right one to move.