CHICAGO — The one thing you have to say about Peter Chiarelli is, he gets his work done.
The Edmonton Oilers general manager has likely traded more No. 1-overall picks than any GM in the game, and came to this NHL Draft with a lengthy honey-do list: Deal Jordan Eberle, get defenceman Kris Russell signed before free agency opens on July 1, and draft a skilled forward with the 22nd-overall pick.
Check, check and check.
Not 24 hours after moving Eberle to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome, Chiarelli inked Russell to a back-diving four-year, $16-million deal. Later that evening, he drafted the shortest player ever chosen in Round 1 of an entry draft — five-foot-seven (and three-quarters) Kailer Yamamoto.
“I think I weighed the lightest too,” said the 148-pound right-winger, who led the Spokane Chiefs (WHL) with 42 goals and 99 points last season.
The grandson of a Japanese immigrant who spent time in a World War II internment camp, Yamamoto took his power skating lessons as a kid growing up in Spokane, Wash., from Debbie Johnson — the mother of Tampa Bay Lightning speedster Tyler.
A decade ago, Yamamoto would have headed straight for Europe after junior. Today, there is plenty of evidence that guys his size can play in the NHL.
“There are a lot of role models in the league now,” he said. “Johnny Gaudreau, Tyler Johnson, Mats Zuccarello. I thank them for paving the pathway for smaller players.”
There is some irony, however, in the fact that a GM known for building a burly, rugged roster would select the smallest first-rounder ever.
“He is small, but he’s strong and has tremendous heart and skill. We saw him a lot, and he didn’t disappoint,” said Chiarelli, who took Yamamoto to dinner with a few Oilers front office folks on Wednesday.
Chiarelli asked him, “Why should we draft you?” and loved the kid’s answer.
“That’s a standard question you ask, and I’ve never really heard this answer,” the GM laughed. “He said, ‘Because (if you don’t) I’m going to come back and haunt you.’ He’s a pretty confident kid, and he backs it up with his play.”
Frankly, with fulsome forwards like Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic, Pat Maroon, Zack Kassian, and a big, beefy defence, Chiarelli’s Oilers now have room for a waterbug like Yamamoto.
“That’s the biggest takeaway here,” Chiarelli said. “You have to have skill too, and we’ve beefed up pretty good.”
His toughest player might be the one he signed on Friday — all 170 pounds of him. Russell is the soft-spoken son of a Caroline, Alta., rodeo bullfighter, who annually finishes top three in blocked shots, leading the league this past season. He’s cowboy tough, and the type of teammate that hockey people desire, even if the hockey nerds despise his fancy stats.
“I understand that every time I mention him there is a whole firestorm of analytics. He just doesn’t put up a lot of points,” Chiarelli reasoned. “His offensive zone entry passes are among the highest in the league. He competes. He blocks shots. He settles the D down. He plays both sides, and he’s a leader (who can) log big minutes. There’s a lot to like about Kris.”
The Russell signing was made more pressing when it was announced after the season that his blue line partner, Andrej Sekera, would be lost until Christmas with a torn ACL. Edmonton couldn’t afford to lose two players from their top four last season, even if common belief is that the young third pairing of Darnell Nurse and Matthew Benning will be ready for a few more minutes next season.
While paying $4 million for a legit top-four defenceman is the going rate, term was more of an issue, considering the hard miles on Russell’s frame. He’ll be 33 in the final year of the deal, but for every aging defenceman who rapidly breaks down, we can name a Brooks Orpik, Francois Beauchemin, Rob Scuderi or Brent Seabrook who lasted just fine until his mid-30s.
As for Eberle, he’s a distant memory only one day after being dealt to the Islanders, his exit having been a topic of discussion ever since his goalless playoff run ended over a month ago.
Eberle, once a pillar of a long lost rebuild, becomes the cap space needed to sign Draisaitl this year, and Connor McDavid next. It can be a cruel business some days, and no one wields the organizational axe better than a GM who has traded Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov.
He’s busy. You’ve got to give Peter Chiarelli that.