EDMONTON — Everybody wants to be Nashville, a franchise that can strut around and talk about how every prospect — no matter how highly touted — goes through AHL Milwaukee on his way to the NHL.
The way the Detroit Red Wings once were, so stacked with veteran talent there was neither need nor space for some 20-year-old right out of junior hockey.
The fact is, most clubs don’t have that luxury. Or, the cap has them in search of talented players who make less than $1 million.
The Edmonton Oilers qualify for all of the above, as they search for their Conor Shearys and Jake Guentzels to flank the $21-million consortium of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“I brought in the right-wingers the other day,” began head coach Todd McLellan, “and discussed where we are at camp, before we’d played any exhibition games. There may be room for two of those individuals, and there were five or six of those guys in there. They’ll sort it out.”
Those players had names like Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie, Tobias Rieder, and perhaps a Scottie Upshall or a Drake Caggiula. Of that group, only Rieder ($2 million) and Caggiula ($1.5 million) are scheduled to make more than $1 million in base salary this season.
The Oilers need that productive player on his entry-level deal to be a difference-maker this season, which is why Yamamoto’s early spike in production becomes so intriguing. The 20-year-old (OK, he’s 19, but his birthday is Sept. 29) came to camp last season and posted five goals and seven points.
Two games into his second camp he has two goals and four points off the right side, a position that is so wide open in Edmonton that Rattie — a veteran of just 49 NHL games – is lining up on the Oilers first line alongside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“It’s nice to score,” said Yamamoto, “but (it’s about) just playing the right way every day. Doing the little things right. Putting in the work, and showing you’re dedicated and you want to make the team.”
Of course it is. But we’ll guarantee you one thing: At this camp, Yamamoto could do all those responsible things — but not score — and he’d get a one-way ticket to AHL Bakersfield before the final cuts were made.
Last pre-season, as an 18-year-old, Yamamoto’s production earned him nine NHL games. He kept getting scoring chances once the season started, but the puck stopped going in, and he was on his way back to WHL Spokane.
During his NHL stint he missed a couple of Grade A chances one night in Pittsburgh, and the Oilers lost a close game to the Penguins. One of them still kicks around the back of the kid’s head, a year later.
“(McDavid) threaded about five sticks, and it came right to me. I had a wide-open net,” he said. “It was a tough angle, but I went cross-crease and I missed. I was like, ‘Oh, my ….’ That one was a little bit engraved in my head. But I’m trying to put it behind me, but, uh …”
Sorry to remind.
Here’s the deal on Yamamoto: He’s earmarked for the AHL, where this organization would like to see him show some dominance before handing him the keys to an NHL roster spot. But like we said, the Oilers are light on the right side, which means Yamamoto could score his way on to this team.
No one will say it on the record, of course.
“Scoring comes after the forechecking, tenacity, the read-and-react, the effort. Putting yourself in the position to score,” said McLellan. “He’s doing all of those things.”
After what happened here last season, there is early desperation in Edmonton. There is no appetite for breaking in a kid who could be making mistakes in Bakersfield, when jobs are dependent on getting this thing going in the right direction this season.
“We can’t pick our team based on convenience, on guys who have to clear waivers and that kind of stuff,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to win games early — we’ve got to win a lot of games. We’ve got to get some confidence in our team, and we have to pick the guys who give the Oilers the best chance of winning. If it’s Yamo, it’s Yamo.”
Yamamoto crashed the net early in Tuesday’s 4-2 win at Vancouver, paving the way for Rattie’s first of two goals. The points are coming for Yamamoto now, the prerequisite for this 22nd-overall pick to hang around the NHL, in this, his first pro season.
“It’s nice to score, but (it’s about) just playing the right way every day,” he repeated. “I think I’ve got a shot, but it’s not my call. Just try to put those chances in, and see where it takes me.”