The Edmonton Oilers recalled Kailer Yamamoto from Bakersfield on December 29. The 21-year-old proceeded to waste no time proving that he packed for a one-way trip and had no intentions on being sent back down to the AHL.
The 2017 first-round pick immediately fit into the Oilers second line. Playing alongside Art Ross winner Leon Draisaitl and two-way specialist Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Yamamoto produced 26 points in 27 games. Yamamoto spent 71.7% of his 469 minutes on the ice playing with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. Their instant chemistry created the most effective second-line the Oilers have seen in years.
Yamamoto’s emergence this season has finally given the Oilers legitimate options and reassurance that they can split Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl without sacrificing production.
Out of all Oilers players who skated at least 400 minutes, Yamamoto sported the best Goal Differential per 60 (GD60) on the team, with a 2.255. He also led the team with a 107.6 PDO (Shooting % + Save %), and a 4.6 Goals For per 60 Minutes at Even-Strength (GF60) while averaging 17:23 minutes-per-game.
Looking through his 11 goals this season, he’s shown that same intensity around the net. Eight of those goals came in the slot from the hash marks down (64% of all goals) and around the net (27% of all goals), according to IcyData.hockey.
Oh, and Yamamoto still has another year left on his Entry-Level Contract that commands just $894,167, or 1.1% of the salary cap. If he continues to produce and develop while playing significant second-line minutes, he could quickly become one of the best value contracts in the league next season.
While no one is going to confuse the 5’8, 153 lbs forward as the biggest guy on the ice, Yamamoto isn’t shying away from the physical side of the game either. He ranks 14th on the Oilers in hits with 45, despite only playing 27 games.
Now to temper some expectations. Yamamoto is playing great, and he’s playing against high-end talent while producing at a near point-per-game pace. He’s also rocking a 25% shooting percentage. That’s the highest in the NHL out of all players who skated at least 20 games this season. So while he’s converting an incredible number of his shots, this scoring pace is unsustainable and is unlikely to continue.
The Oilers managed to draft Yamamoto with the 22nd pick in 2017. He lit up the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs, putting up 99 points in 65 games during his draft year. The fact they were able to get him at all comes down a bit to luck, and mostly because of the league’s bias towards drafting bigger, “NHL ready” players. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again, most recently with American Cole Caufield dropping to the 15th pick in the 2019 draft. Before being brought up to the Oilers in December, Yamamoto also scored 16 points in 23 games in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors.
The problem for the Oilers and Yamamoto might start to come at the end of next season when his contract expires. It’s in Yamamoto’s best interest to put off signing an extension as long as possible if he believes he can continue to up his value. That might be why the Oilers should try to extend him as soon as possible. Otherwise he might very well play his way to a massive contract.
The good news for the team is that at the same time Yamamoto is due for a raise, they’ll have the contracts of Alex Chiasson ($2.15 million), Adam Larsson ($4.16 million) and Kris Russell ($4 million) coming off the books. That might give them the wiggle room to pay whatever price Yamamoto ends up asking for.
Yamamoto’s break-out tour isn’t over yet though. When the team takes on the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round, Yamamoto is going to be counted on to continue producing on the second line while playing against postseason veterans like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. The playoffs have been and will always be the ultimate proving grounds.