PHILADELPHIA — As Kailer Yamamoto readies for his sixth National Hockey League game Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, his status as an Edmonton Oiler boils down to this:
Can these Oilers, a team in “win now” mode for the first time in ages, afford to send a Top 6 forward back to junior simply to protect their salary grid three years from now? Do they have so many Top 6 players that Yamamoto can be sacrificed for salary cap concerns? Because, through his first five NHL games, the 19-year-old Yamamoto certainly looks like a Top 6 NHL forward.
“So far,” allowed head coach Todd McLellan.
The other side of that question, of course, is this: When we’re 30 games into the long grind of an NHL season, will Yamamoto still command Top 6 ice time? How about in January? What about March?
Make no mistake: McLellan wouldn’t have this kid on his top line if he didn’t think he was the best option on Connor McDavid’s right wing today, with Leon Draisaitl (concussion) on injured reserve.
“I wouldn’t be playing him 20 minutes a night if I didn’t,” McLellan said. “My usage of Yamo can answer that question.”
“We believe in him.”
So, let’s walk through this. Can the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Yamamoto, who nobody in this Oilers organization saw making the NHL this season, actually stick in the NHL as a 19-year-old?
• Yamamoto is scheduled to play game No. 6 on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, on Edmonton’s top line. His entry-level contract does not activate until he plays his 10th game. He can still be returned to junior, the way Draisaitl was after 37 games in his rookie campaign, but burning a year of his contract under those circumstances is not smart.
On Thursday in Chicago, Yamamoto led Edmonton in shots on goal (eight) and missed the net or was blocked on three others. He had more scoring chances than any Oiler, and after five pre-season goals, we would predict that games six through nine are likely to produce the kind of goal production that will be very difficult to ship back to the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said after the Chicago game. “I’m starting to make the plays that I would normally make. It’s just time. Every game I’m learning new things, different things.”
• Yamamoto has not scored yet, but currently rides a three-game points streak. Only his linemates McDavid and Patrick Maroon have accomplished that this season.
He’s tied for second on the team with 20 shots on goal, and ranks sixth in ice time per game (15:27).
“You almost get that feeling that once one (puck) goes in, he’s going to be really, really good,” McDavid said. “I know when I was playing with him in the pre-season, after every shift he was asking a new question. He knows what he’s supposed to do now and … everything he’s done has made him successful. That’s why he’s here.”
• Edmonton is not a particularly fast team on the wings, particularly with Drake Caggiula (concussion) out of the lineup. Yamamoto picks up their pace, and is an excellent speed option on the opposite flank of big plodders Maroon or Milan Lucic.
As well, the No. 4 overall pick from 2016 — right winger Jesse Puljujarvi — is in AHL Bakersfield, and requires some time and patience. That will have no bearing on whether the Oilers keep Yamamoto this season or not, but if he’s ready to help that will buy some time for Puljujarvi, whose offensive skills are said to be above average, but needs work defensively.
“I think I have a lot more,” Yamamoto said before hopping the charter for Philly. “I can only control (what happens) on the ice, and I can’t control if I’m staying or not.
“When the pre-season started, I thought I could play in the league. Now, playing with Connor, it’s been a whirlwind. But I get more comfortable as each game goes on. It’s been a wild run.”