Five years ago in June of 2017, the Edmonton Oilers selected forward Kailer Yamamoto with their 22nd overall draft pick.
Yamomoto’s first year with the Oilers was in 2017-18. He played a brief nine-game stint with the team, and was later sent down to the Spokane Chiefs for the remainder of the season.
In 2018-19, Yamamoto rotated between Edmonton and Bakersfield while battling injuries. He played 17 games with the Oilers, and 27 games with the Condors. The following season in 2019-20, he was recalled to Edmonton’s roster in late December.
This was the season that Yamamoto solidified himself as an NHL regular. Many will vividly recall the dominant “DRY” line, consisting of Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto. That trio was the primary driving force behind Edmonton’s resurgence in the second portion of that year, and Yamamoto nearly produced a point per game.
Currently, the 23-year-old forward is a pending RFA, as his one-year, $1M contract expires. He’s on a long list of several players that Ken Holland must re-sign this off-season, and Holland has limited cap space to do it.
So, how good is Yamamoto? What contract does he deserve? To what extent is he a valuable asset moving forward?
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise
The production rates
As stated previously, Yamamoto was part of an excellent line with Draisaitl and RNH in 19-20. He produced a total of 11 goals and 26 points in 27 games, and even finished 4th in the entire league in 5v5 Points per hour that season.
Of course, these production rates were unsustainable, as he carried a 25% shooting-percentage, and a PDO (proxy for on-ice puck luck) of 1.07. Predictably, he regressed the subsequent season, with 21 points in 52 games.
This season, Yamamoto hit the 20-goal and 40-point marks, with a total of 20 goals and 41 points in 81 games, alongside an additional 7 points in 14 playoff games.
For those interested in Points/60, Yamamoto produced at a rate of 1.5 even-strength points per hour, and 1.8 total points per hour, ranking ninth on the team in both aspects this season.
The month-by-month breakdown of Yamamoto’s production is fascinating.
Yamamoto’s initial start to the season was abysmal, not recording a single point in the month of October. In the subsequent four months, Yamamoto’s production varied from somewhat above-average to mediocre.
In the month of December, Yamamoto had a stretch of seven games in which he didn’t record a single shot on net. This was a topic that caused plentiful debate among media and fans alike, with Jim Matheson as a very vocal critic of his performance.
However, there was a drastic shift in his production in later months. In March, Yamamoto recorded eight goals and fourteen points in fifteen games. He continued a decently strong rate of production into April, with six points in eight games. A significant reason for his uptick in production was the hiring of Jay Woodcroft, and the results of a hot offensive stretch from the line of Kane – McDavid – Yamamoto.
It’s safe to say that Yamamoto’s final two months seemed to markedly change and shift many’s viewpoints of him.
Yamamoto’s playing style
*Percentiles are the value below which a percentage of data falls; e.g., if a player ranks in the 75th percentile in Points/60, this means they produce at a superior rate than 75% of the league
The primary source of Yamamoto’s value comes from his forechecking abilities.
Although his dump-in recovery rates are unremarkable, Yamamoto specifically excels at disrupting opposing zone exits, constantly pressuring defenders, and creating turnovers in the offensive zone. These are valuable traits that are quite useful for star players that love to possess the puck. Yamamoto doesn’t often play like the 5’8, 153 lb forward he is.
In regards to transitional performance, he’s efficient at successfully exiting the zone, although his total volume of entries and exits are mediocre.
As for his offensive zone play-making, Yamamoto is pretty inadequate in this facet. His rate of cross-seam passes is quite low, and he doesn’t set up his teammates in high-danger opportunities too often. His teammates tend to do the heavy lifting when it comes to cycle play.
In regards to shooting, Yamamoto is certainly not a volume shooter, and in spite of playing alongside two of the most lethal rush attackers in the league, his Rush Shots/60 ranks merely in the 16th percentile. However, he does excel at generating chances in front of the net.
“Net-Front Chances” are essentially the sum of deflections, tip-ins, rebounds, and other inner-slot chances. Around and in front of the net is where Yamamoto produces a sizeable portion of his shots.
This isn’t exactly a microstat, but another underrated aspect of Yamamoto’s play style is his ability to draw penalties. In the past three seasons, Yamamoto has drawn 1.01 minor penalties per hour, ranking 2nd on the team (behind McDavid, of course).
Overall, there are several positives and negatives to his microstats, but how do they translate to on-ice results?
The on-ice results
Here’s a glance at Yamamoto’s on-ice results at even-strength;
There are several things to note here.
His best results came in 2019-20, which is certainly not shocking. The “DRY” line was phenomenal at both ends of the ice, and with Yamamoto playing a significant role, his goal differential was superb. The expected goals paint a favorable picture as well.
However, several of his metrics declined the subsequent year. His goal differential still remained at an exceptional level, but he was only marginally above-average in regards to impact on expected goals / scoring chances.
This season, the actual and expected goals were fairly similar, but they were poor in both regards. Although Yamamoto hit career-highs in raw production, the team was out-scored 54 – 59 with Yamamoto on-ice at 5v5, in spite of regularly playing alongside one of McDavid or Draisaitl.
A potential reason for the decline in Yamamoto’s on-ice metrics may be the decline of the “DRY” line in general.
After a brilliant second half in 2019-20, the trio has been quite poor in the minutes they played in the last two seasons. They have a mere 43 xGF%, and high-danger chances are at an abysmal ratio of 47 – 73 with that trio on-ice. It’s difficult to determine the exact cause of their recent ineffectiveness, though, but part of it is likely attributed to Yamamoto in some way (perhaps RNH’s recent 5v5 struggles play some sort of role as well).
To dive deeper, let’s split Yamamoto’s on-ice results into offence (actual and expected goals for), and defence (actual and expected goals against).
Again, it’s unsurprising that Yamamoto’s best offensive results came in 2019-20, and he excelled at generating scoring chances as well.
The following year, he was fairly average in both aspects. In regards to both raw on-ice results, and RAPM, Yamamoto was nothing extraordinary at contributing to team offence. This isn’t shocking, considering that his production was also unexceptional (21 points in 52 games). This season, he was marginally above-average at impacting on-ice goals, but a negative at driving scoring chances.
As stated before, he still only ranked 9th on the team in EV Points/60. Both the EV point rates and underlying numbers suggest that, although his raw point totals were personal career-highs, his offence wasn’t spectacular, although this was mostly due to his rough start.
Here’s how Yamamoto looks in regards to defence;
Yamamoto received exceedingly favorable goaltending luck in 2019-20 and 2020-21; the Oilers had a SV% of 0.936 and 0.934 with Yamamoto on-ice in those two years respectively, and this inflated his goal differential. Meanwhile, he obtained some poor goaltending this season.
This is a good time to mention that goals against aren’t as reliable in single-season samples due to the variance in goaltending luck, and it’s important to also consider expected goals. Yamamoto’s impact on preventing scoring chances / xGA has remained fairly constant, ranking at a below-average level in each of the past three seasons.
To make this easier to comprehend, the objective of skater defence is to essentially limit the workload your goalie faces, as much as possible. The Oilers allow scoring chances at a decently higher rate with Yamamoto on-ice, as opposed to without.
Yamamoto does kill penalties, but 5v5 defence often requires different skills from penalty-killing. Yamamoto is a fine penalty-killer, but he must improve his defensive results at 5v5.
One may argue that Yamamoto’s metrics suffered from Tippett’s system, and this is true to an extent. Under Woodcroft, Yamamoto improved to a goal differential of 51%, and an xGF% of 52%. As seen by his production in March/April, Yamamoto’s improved results were primarily due to his offensive resurgence.
However, under Woodcroft, Yamamoto was on-ice for roughly three goals against per hour, ranking last on the team. Yamamoto also ranked 2nd last in expected goals against per hour (2.9) among Oilers forwards under Woodcroft.
Put differently, Yamamoto became a much more high-event player after the coaching change; his improved offensive results and production are positive signs, but his inferior defence is a cause for concern.
In the playoffs, Yamamoto’s goal differential was at a brutal 41%, but his xGF% was at an excellent 59%. It’s fair to deduce that he was unlucky to an extent in regards to goal share, although 14 GP samples aren’t large enough to make accurate conclusions about a player in the first place.
So, with all of this in mind, what can we conclude about Yamamoto? How good is he?
For several reasons, Yamamoto is an interesting and fascinating player, with a variety of different pros and cons.
At his best, Yamamoto is a tenacious and aggressive puck hound, that works hard in corners and below the goal-line, and generates numerous chances near the front of the net. When he’s at the top of his game, he’s likely a very enjoyable player for McDavid and Draisaitl to play alongside, and he can be a frustrating player to play against for opposing defenders.
However, multiple things suggest he’s a rather streaky player offensively, and inconsistent to some degree.
In 2019-20, he played exceptional offensive hockey, producing at nearly a point-per-game pace. If Yamamoto wasn’t recalled to Edmonton’s roster that season, and if the “DRY” line wasn’t reunited, I’m not entirely sure if the team would have finished 2nd place in the Pacific.
Yamamoto got off to a solid start in 2020-21 as well, with seven points in his first eleven games. However, he produced merely 14 points in his subsequent 41 games, including just four goals. Throughout the 2021 off-season, OilersNow host Bob Stauffer would frequently mention this stat about his four goals in his final 41 games.
Production-wise, Yamamoto had an abysmal start in 2021-22, but in the months of March and April, his production was exceptional once again. On the contrary, his 5v5 defensive play worsened as the season progressed.
Yamamoto is more of an uncertain player than many may think he is. Personally, I’m not sure if we fully know what his exact value is, yet.
At times, he can be the perfect offensive complementary player for Edmonton’s two superstars, as he can effectively play the roles of a tenacious forechecker and hard-working net-front presence. Conversely, there are also stretches in which Yamamoto is essentially unimpactful offensively, and almost invisible. Many people’s perspectives on him have been a roller-coaster this season.
We also don’t know how good of a finisher he is.
Yamamoto was an excellent finisher in 2019-20, although as stated previously, he rode a 25% shooting percentage, and he regressed to a poor finisher in 2020-21. This season, he was once again an ineffective finisher in the first few months, but significantly improved in later months.
With all of this said, Yamamoto still remains an incredibly useful middle-six winger. He must accomplish more to be a great choice for 1RW, but he is certainly valuable.
I’ve seen many frame Edmonton’s pending RFA situation as “Puljujarvi vs Yamamoto.” I highly disagree with this.
For reasons I plan to explain in a future piece, I believe that Puljujarvi is the superior two-way player, but a wise team attempts to keep both. Puljujarvi is just 24, while Yamamoto is just 23, and since contracts are extremely reliant on points, neither of them will earn pricey cap-hits.
If Edmonton finds a really favorable trade for Yamamoto, they should certainly consider it. However, pursuing ways to move Tyson Barrie, Zack Kassian, and/or Warren Foegele’s contracts should be a higher priority as opposed to dealing one of your young, cheap, top-nine forwards.
A fair contract for Yamamoto probably lies in the $2.5M – $3.5M range. Anything that exceeds that is an overpay, although it’s unlikely that it would.
With the current results we’ve seen thus far, it’s fair to conclude that Yamamoto is an above-average offensive complementary player, and a below-average defensive player.
The primary thing separating Yamamoto from being a great offensive player is consistency. He’s definitely shown stretches of hockey where he can be an exceptional offensive asset, but moving forward, his primary objective should be to maintain those results over a full season.
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