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FEATURE: Yamamoto measures up

Rookie first-round pick Kailer Yamamoto is doing everything he can to show Oilers he belongs

by Chris Wescott / Head Writer

EDMONTON, AB -The best Kailer Yamamoto can do with his playing time in the pre-season is work hard and make it as difficult as possible on the organization to cut him.

That's exactly what the 22nd-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft has done thus far.

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"If the player can play, and we believe he's going to get better, then let's play him," said Head Coach Todd McLellan. "If he takes a job away from somebody then so be it. It doesn't matter what age you are."

Dubbed one of the best forwards for the Oilers in Monday night's pre-season loss to Carolina by McLellan, Yamamoto has "absolutely" put himself in position to make this roster.

The 18-year-old has scored an NHL-leading five goals during exhibition play. The offence is of no surprise to pretty much anyone. The rookie tore up the Western Hockey League with 42 goals and 99 points last season for the Spokane Chiefs - which is a big part of what made him a first-round pick in the first place.

What has been the surprise is how quickly Yamamoto has earned respect for just how hard he works and how competitive he is, despite his size (5-foot-8, 154 pounds).

"He's been good," said Oilers Captain Connor McDavid. "He definitely doesn't let his size hurt him in any way. He's a battler, he works hard and he reminds me of another smaller kid I used to play with in (Alex) DeBrincat. They both battle so hard and don't let their size hinder them in any way. It's cool to see."

The Oilers ran some one-on-one battle drills at practice on Tuesday, and the diminutive winger was thrown right into the fray.

"I think I did pretty good, other than that first one against (Zack) Kassian kind of threw me," Yamamoto said. "Other than that, I thought I held my ground and it was good. The guys were really good so it was a lot of fun."

He held in there - defending the puck well despite his size disadvantage against some of the Edmonton's bigger forwards.

"He's a strong kid," said Oilers winger Patrick Maroon. "He actually protects the puck pretty well for a little guy. He's got a lot of skill and a lot of upside to him. Obviously, that's why he went top (22). He's been showing all pre-season long that he can make this team and he's making his way to that. He needs to keep working hard, he needs to keep doing what he's doing and staying with it and sticking to it."

When it comes down to how he's performed in physically challenging battles on the ice during the pre-season, McLellan says it's been "nothing but positive" for the rookie.

"He's not going to win the strength battle against 90% of the players in the League, but he might outsmart quite a few," said the bench boss. "When he's playing that way and he positions himself well, he's got great escape skills, his low centre of gravity helps him and he's very quick. He's slippery, he turns on a dime and makes it hard to defend. If you get him in an area when you get him, for lack of a better term, in a cage and you can pin him you're probably going to be successful. But if he gets away on you and he starts to slip he's dangerous."

The way he battles, the way he works hard every day and how he plays the game in general has gained him more respect in the locker room than his impact on the score sheet.

"100 percent," said McDavid. "Just to see how hard he battles against guys that are almost double his weight, it's cool to see. You can definitely respect it and he's earned that respect each and every day."

"He doesn't back down from anyone," Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot said after Yamamoto scored a goal versus Carolina. "He goes to those dirty areas and he's pretty good around the net. You see with his hand-eye in front, he bats pucks out of the air, he's good around the net, he has smart hockey sense so it's nice to see him contribute like that. It's what you expect out of a guy like that. He comes in and works hard every day and proves himself, so good for him."

On Tuesday at practice, Yamamoto was on a line with Maroon and McDavid - where he finished Monday's game. McLellan said not to get too far ahead, in terms of the line combinations, and that he wants the young winger to focus on making the roster rather than who he plays with.

"Let's just let the 18-year-old try to make the team instead of throwing him up on Connor's line," said McLellan. "He's played there, he's played well, he's comfortable there, but the pressure I want him to feel is to try and make the team and to feel comfortable and make sure he can develop, not the pressure of playing on Connor's line. Now, if he happens to continue to perform well and he can continue to get it done there, he'll play there. But right now, let's give him a little to chew off, not a lot."

Until that decision of whether he'll stay or not is made, Yamamoto will continue to try and do what he's done so far: work hard, compete and earn respect each and every day.

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