The way Kailer Yamamoto laughs and jokes around with his teammates in the Edmonton Oilers locker room, you’d think he was a seasoned NHL veteran.
But the truth is the 21-year-old Yamamoto has only played in a few games for Edmonton this season and 26 over the previous two campaigns with the Oilers. He was called up from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors on Dec. 29 and has quickly gelled with linemates Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“They’re two unbelievable players so any time you can get by you obviously want to stick and do anything you can to stick,” Yamamoto said on Monday ahead of Edmonton’s game against the Maple Leafs. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to play with them, create some chemistry, create some energy for that line and hopefully stick on.”
Yamamoto has a goal and an assist with a plus-3 rating in three games this season heading into Monday’s matchup in Toronto. Playing with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins has motivated him to get into the corners and be the workhorse of the Oilers’ second line.
“I’m just more comfortable with the guys and I know what to expect,” said Yamamoto. “Now coming into my third season, having played a couple of games, I’m more comfortable, more confident.”
At just five-foot-eight and 153 pounds, hard work is how Yamamoto has had to distinguish himself with the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs and then into the professional ranks. That effort has not gone unnoticed by either Yamamoto’s coach or his teammates.
“He’s been great. He’s a lot of fun to play with,” Draisaitl said. “He’s a little guy but he’s feisty. He gets in there. Does a lot of little things that a lot of people probably don’t really recognize. He hunts pucks like crazy. It’s been fun and hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Teammates like Draisaitl were already a little familiar with what Yamamoto has to offer after his nine games in the 2017-18 season and 17 in 2018-19, but head coach Dave Tippett joined the Edmonton organization in the off-season and is still getting to know him.
“I’ve learned that he’s a smart, really good player. Plays the game the right way, he’s on the right side of the puck, makes good plays,” Tippett said. “He uses his size well for what he is. People would look and say he’s a little guy but the way he gets around the game, the way he competes, the way he uses his body to protect pucks, it’s not an issue with him.”
The Oilers have looked sharper in the past three games, earning a 7-5 win over the New York Rangers on New Year’s Eve, falling to the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 2 and then beating the Boston Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.
Tippett’s decision to split up Draisaitl and Connor McDavid – who have nearly identical stat lines atop the NHL’s scoring race – has made Edmonton a tougher matchup defensively. McDavid, who is now on a line with James Neal and Zack Kassian, points to Yamamoto’s arrival as the turning point, since it gave Tippett more depth to work with.
“I think a lot of credit is due to Yamamoto,” McDavid said. “I think he’s come up and really provided some energy for our group and he’s played really well so I think a lot of credit is due to him.”
Even as he’s making an impact in the NHL, Yamamoto may have one last minor-league appearance ahead of him after he was named to the AHL’s All-Star Classic on Jan. 26 and 27. Yamamoto has eight goals and eight assists in 23 games with Bakersfield, where he leads the team with three game-winning goals. His four power-play goals also lead the team.