SCOTTSDALE, AZ – When the Edmonton Oilers called up Kailer Yamamoto from their farm team for a home game against the New York Rangers Dec. 31, they were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference looking in. Since then, they’ve gone 8-1-2, been the third-hottest team in the league behind the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets and entrenched themselves firmly in the playoffs in second place in the dog’s breakfast known as the Pacific Division.
Who knew that developing a reliable second line, something Yamamoto gave them the capability of doing, would be such a key to their success? Well, a lot of people, actually. Loading up on Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid made the Oilers dangerous, but one-dimensional. Now, with the second line of Draisaitl between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto, the Oilers have some legitimate forward depth in their lineup.
Since Yamamoto’s call-up, he has been impressive, scoring five goals and 10 points in 11 games. The line actually was put together for Yamamoto’s second game in Edmonton. Draisaitl, the NHL’s reigning first star of the week, has a mind-boggling six goals and 21 points and has (temporarily) usurped McDavid for the NHL’s scoring lead. Nugent-Hopkins has six goals and 13 points in that 10-game span. The three have developed a very good chemistry playing with one another and were a force in the latest installment of the Battle of Alberta, an 8-3 win for the Oilers in Calgary Saturday night.
“He’s helped us a lot, he’s helped our line a lot,” Draisaitl said. “But I’m sure we’ve helped him a little bit, too.” Undoubtedly that has been the case. As Oilers coach Dave Tippett pointed out, Draisaitl is an elite talent in the NHL for a number of reasons, one of which is that he makes players around him better. And finding a good fit for the versatile Nugent-Hopkins was crucial.
The day before the Oilers drafted Yamamoto in 2017, he was asked why the Oilers should take him with the 22nd overall pick in the draft. “Because (if you don’t) I’m going to come back to haunt you,” was his response. The Oilers listened and took Yamamoto and even though it has been an up-and-down road for Yamamoto since, when he came up this time, he was more prepared for the rigors of the NHL. “I don’t think he’s very fun to play against,” Draisaitl said. “He’s very feisty and gets under guys’ skin. And he has a lot of skill. He can finish plays and make those little plays around the net. He’s been a huge piece for us.”
One of the biggest testaments to Yamamoto’s jam was his play Saturday night against Calgary. At 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, instead of blending into the background, he played like a player twice his size. He is clearly not afraid of the big stage and in a game that was billed as big-boy hockey, one of the smallest players in the NHL had a huge impact, opening the scoring for the Oilers in the rout and being all over pucks all game. “He has been relentless,” said Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett.
“A couple of things I pride myself on are always being tenacious around the puck and always trying to get it back,” Yamamoto told reporters. “I kind of got that from my Dad and brother growing up.”
The Oilers will try to continue their surge tonight against the Arizona Coyotes, a team trending in the polar opposite direction. The Oilers are getting outstanding secondary scoring and the Coyotes are getting almost none. The Oilers are a prime example of the kind of depth you need to succeed in the NHL.
“That balance (one the second line) is something we have to have,” Tippett said. “I’ve thought that all along, but as you go, you’re trying to find a mix-and-match. Connor and Leon were just on fire early in the year, so you leave them alone. But ultimately, I think for us to become the team we want to become, we need better balance throughout. Draisaitl and McDavid are top players who make other players around them better, so we can use that to our advantage.”