Ah, the early season over-reactions. As the bubbling magma of possibilities begins to cool, a three-game streak of losing or winning can derail even the most steadfast of beliefs. A time where one can gaze into the eyes of promise and doom on a week to week basis. Are we amazing or are we trash? All we can tell is that the competitive spirit is high across Oil Country as the clock ticks by on another season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s collective prime. If there is a truth to anchor our perspective, it is the pair of superstars that offer a beacon through the uncertainties of development and decline.
Amidst the storylines the rest of the Oilers players are authoring individually lies the curious case of Kailer Yamamoto. Through some lean production, an area that has seen a longer term downward trend, and looking for a productive home in the lineup, it has not been a picturesque start to 2022–23 for the recently re-signed winger. With already 13 games played, he has had zero goals and three assists.
Is Yamamoto underperforming? Is he living up to his $3.1 million cap hit? How much more, or what at all, should Oiler fans be expecting? Where might he fit into the lineup? One thing is sure, at this point we have more questions than answers.
What Yamamoto has to offer
From a distance, particularly for fans of other teams, Yamamoto’s history as a player might give the wrong impression. A first round pick endorsed by Wayne Gretzky himself, the expectations were naturally high that Yamamoto could become a strong contributor in an NHL top six.
As a smaller skilled winger, many conjured visions of a dazzling playmaker that might persist to this point. Naturally, his production in developmental leagues continued, but truth be told Yamamoto began his NHL career with a bang as well. Scoring 11 goals and 26 points in 27 games during the 2019–20 season set a really high bar for Yamamoto. Prior to the pandemic, Yamamoto’s stock was on the rise, as many might have projected his offensive totals to continue their upwards trajectory.
For fans more familiar with the Oilers since then, a different reality has come to take shape. Truth be told, Yamamoto’s game is built much more around his effort than his offence.
Sure, Yamamoto still has some puck skills and passing talent, but most of his best work comes through approaching battles with reckless abandon. Digging for pucks along the boards or fighting for ice at the net front are the most common places that one can find Yamamoto at his best.
Though not as thunderous a forechecker as say Trevor Moore of the Los Angeles Kings, Yamamoto has an active stick that makes him an option in defensive situations, even brief appearances on the penalty kill.
In all, Yamamoto is a complimentary player, able to make contributions in key areas, as opposed to a play driver capable of carrying a line on his own.
Where Yamamoto belong in the lineup
Yes, the Oilers do have a plethora of talented forwards, but in a sense this does limit a lot of Yamamoto’s potential usage in offensive situations. Already behind the likes of Zach Hyman and Evander Kane for power play time, Yamamoto’s current struggles have seen him fall out of his long held spot on Leon Draisaitl’s wing at even strength.
There might be possible line combinations that could spark Yamamoto’s game. Although many would succeed on a line with both McDavid and Draisaitl, Yamamoto might have some stylistic synergy in such a spot. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman do their best work together, and could be a soft landing spot for many Oilers wingers, including Yamamoto. A role on a third, or checking line centred by Ryan McLeod might be the most ideal of all, given the tenacity that Yamamoto embodies.
In a lot of these same potential landing spots are other homegrown first round talents, Jesse Puljujarvi and Dylan Holloway. Puljujarvi has had some offensive struggles of his own, but is younger, bigger, and has an extensive and positive reputation as a defensive presence. Holloway might be best suited for a top six role of the trio, read most offensive upside, but is still finding his way in the league.
What should be expected of him?
In any Oilers top six, this trio would be filling complimentary off-puck roles, meaning the offensive burden on them would be diminished to an extent. From this perspective Yamamoto, along with Puljujarvi and McLeod, should not be held to a high standard when it comes to individual scoring.
Moreover, given the Oilers’ personnel and early season results, it’s pretty unfair to suggest Yamamoto is underperforming based on his point totals alone. The Oilers don’t need more goals to improve their record, instead the focus needs to be on an improved level of team defence.
At some point the goals will come for Yamamoto, often through deflections at the net front, but raising the level of detail and intensity on his line is the much more important metric to measure Yamamoto by. Granted, his offensive contributions started slowly last year as well, but looking for a new home after falling off of Draisaitl’s wing, the Oilers will almost certainly hope to see Yamamoto bring an energising jolt to a checking line.