Yamamoto’s spot with Oilers the worst-kept secret in camp

EDMONTON — Kailer Yamamoto is still dressing on a couple of folding chairs in the middle of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room, and picking up the pucks after practice as rookies are expected to do.

But as he celebrated his 19th birthday on Friday at Rogers Arena, skating on the Oilers second line with Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, his situation here has become the worst-kept secret in camp.

Yamamoto will open the regular season with the Oilers against the Calgary Flames here on Wednesday. It’s just that no one wants to say it out loud quite yet.

“If we had to make a decision right now, he would start the season (in the NHL),” Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli told Sportsnet on Friday, while taping an interview to run closer to Opening Night. “We’ve still got some time left, but he’s certainly earned the spot he is in right now.”

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Yamamoto, who leads all NHLers with five pre-season goals, is going to Vancouver for the final exhibition game and playing right wing on a key line. He’ll get some second unit power play time, and begin what will amount to a second training camp when he plays his first NHL game Wednesday.

Of course, he can play nine NHL games, then be sent back to his junior club in Spokane without burning a year on his entry-level contract. That route is still the expected course of action for Yamamoto, who still wears Invisalign braces on his teeth.

“I should have had them off, like, two years ago,” he shrugged. “But my mom wants my teeth to be perfect.”

Five-foot-eight, 154 pounds, braces on his teeth and a 19th birthday party to attend. Life is swell, in the NHL.

“Ah, to be 19 again…,” mused Lucic, his voice trailing off. “I remember how I felt in his position, just embracing the moment, competing with guys you used to watch on TV. I remember seeing Zdeno Chara and going, ‘Holy smokes! I’m actually playing with a guy of his calibre.’”

“He’s made quite an impression. He’s quick, and a very good skater. But the biggest reason why he is still around here is that he competes.

There is a meeting in Yamamoto’s future. Likely two.

The one where Chiarelli says he’s starting the season in Edmonton, and then another one where the GM will either send him back to junior or welcome him to the NHL full-time.

Lucic went back to the Vancouver Giants as an 18-year-old, and we’re betting Yamamoto ends up in Spokane after a short NHL audition. But you never know, and when you are an NHL player, you’ll never forget that meeting when you get the word.

“One of the best meetings I’ve had with Peter over the 11, 12 years I’ve known him,” Lucic said. “I’m sure Yamo will experience that same meeting, sooner than later. If not this year, most likely next.”

Chiarelli is seeing exactly what he thought he’d see in Yamamoto, a player the Oilers were on to very early in the draft process. This is how it’s supposed to work — and so seldom did in this organization for so many years.

Accurate player evaluation that secures talent at somewhere below No. 1 overall. Imagine that, Oilers fans.

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“He’s made quite an impression,” Chiarelli said. “He’s quick, and a very good skater. But the biggest reason why he is still around here is that he competes. He’s in the battles, he knows how to battle for his size. His compete and his hockey sense are terrific. And he’s sturdy for his size.”

“You see his height and his weight, and you’re like, ‘Ok, maybe this guy will be good four, five years from now, after two more years of junior and probably a year or two in the minors,’” Lucic said. “But for me, it’s been his ability to make plays, his ability to keep plays alive, his fearlessness to go into the corners. Most of his goals have been from around the net. He’s shown already that he’s willing to go to those areas.”

So Yamamoto has bought himself October. Step 1.

Now, Step 2: Try to hang on into November, a much more difficult task.

“Dan Bylsma always told me that when I was going up and down, ‘There’s a difference between getting here, and staying here,’” centre Mark Letestu said of his former coach in Pittsburgh. “Lots of guys get here, but there’s a different level of compete and consistency that allows you to stay here.”

Letestu suspects Yamamoto will be here to stay sooner than later. That much, we can agree on.

But there will be a meeting, like the one between Chiarelli and Lucic, some time around that seven- or eight-game mark of Yamamoto’s career.

What will be the outcome? That, folks, is still a mystery.

“I just come to the rink prepared to play every day,” Yamamoto said. “If you get called into the office, so be it.”