Team USA's Kailer Yamamoto at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Source: Getty Images
It's been a busy year already for Kailer Yamamoto, who started the season with the Edmonton Oilers before being returned to the WHL and then sent to the 2018 WJC for a starring role with Team USA.
BUFFALO – In his month-long NHL stint at the start of the season, Edmonton Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto got to fly on charter jets to cosmopolitan cities such as Chicago and Vancouver. Now, he’s back on the bus in the WHL, chugging through Washington state with the Spokane Chiefs. But the skilled right winger knows it’s all part of the process.
“Getting a sneak peek makes you want to work that much harder, to get back up there and stay up there,” he said. “It’s disappointing getting sent back, but it’s a learning curve, so you have to go back with an open mind.”
At 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds, Yamamoto wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to jump straight from the draft to the NHL, but he was impressive enough at camp to earn a nine-game apprenticeship. Thanks to fellow youngsters such as Leon Draisaitl and Jujhar Khaira, Yamamoto got some great advice on the pro lifestyle.
“I learned how to treat your body like a pro,” Yamamoto said. “Make sure you’re getting the rest you need, getting the right nutrition. Being able to hang out with those guys and see what they do every day showed me how pros act and how they handle pressure.”
Now, he’s in another pressure-packed scenario in Buffalo, where Team USA has designs on a gold medal at the 2018 World Junior Championship. The defending champs have never won on home ice and while many involved have looked back on the outdoor game against Canada as a distraction (albeit a fun one), the Americans have hit their stride when it matters.
“We’ve been doing the little things a lot better,” Yamamoto said. “My first couple games were not very good from my standpoint, but I’ve gotten better as I’ve gone on.”
In the quarterfinal against Russia, Yamamoto notched his second goal of the tournament and, according to his coach, the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 draft is being counted on to contribute.
“We seem to have had a lot of guys that jumped on board at the same time,” said Bob Motzko. “He’s bringing the energy level every night, he’s a threat, he wins puck battles…we’ve been going with three right wings a lot and he can go all night long.”
From here, it will be interesting to see where Yamamoto’s game goes. His Spokane Chiefs are in a wild-card playoff position, even though their star right winger has only played 12 games so far. The Chiefs have a nice cast supporting Yamamoto, so they’ll be a dangerous out this season.
As for Edmonton, it’s been a trainwreck year for the Oilers. What started out with promise of a conference final appearance – and perhaps a berth in the Stanley Cup final – has quickly turned into a nightmare where Vegas leads the Pacific and Edmonton likely won’t make the post-season at all.
But Yamamoto is a sneaky offensive threat and if he can bolster the right side for the Oilers next year, perhaps the team won’t get caught flat-footed again. After all, you shouldn’t need too much more help when Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are leading your attack.
In the meantime, Yamamoto will go for gold in Buffalo and then head back to Spokane. The lessons he learned in the NHL will be with him the whole time.
“There’s a lot of pressure up there,” he said. “You’re making plays quick and you have to keep your head up with those bigger guys, so it’s just the little things.”
Yamamoto himself may be little, but don’t underestimate him: that’s when he burns your team.