A day after adding Brain Dumoulin to the blue line, the Seattle Kraken made another NHL level move, signing Spokane, Wash., native Kailer Yamamoto to bolster the team’s forward group.

When asked about Yamamoto after development camp that afternoon, head coach Dave Hakstol described the diminutive winger as “tenacious.” With that single word, Hakstol surely intended to compliment Yamamoto’s quick, grinding, and pesty game.

But the Kraken bench boss may as well have been contrasting the Kraken’s newest bottom-six right-handed winger with a player that filled that role last season, Daniel Sprong. Economics played a role in the swap—Yamamoto signed for less than Sprong received in Detroit. But Sprong was always a bit of a square peg in a round hole at the bottom of Seattle’s lineup. He cheated for offense and was routinely “hidden” against weaker competition to protect his defensive game.

Now, Yamamoto may not “look” like the round peg Seattle needs toward the bottom of their forward group either. He’s 5-foot-8 and maybe 160 pounds soaking wet. He also doesn’t have any real track record playing down lineup. He was always an offensive standout in junior and minor-league hockey, and he rarely fell out of a top-six role with Edmonton.

But, as I watched his shifts from the end of last season in Edmonton, I started to see a player I could envision producing down lineup—using his speed, forecheck, and net-front mentality to score, while also playing responsible hockey in his own end. Add to that his versatility to play higher in the lineup, as he showed in Edmonton, and the pieces started to fit together for me.

A bit undersized and underestimated, he is, as Hakstol succinctly stated, tenacious. Paired with a team full of like-minded skaters, he can wear out an opponent. This may make him a perfect Kraken.

What is the deal?

One week ago Kailer Yamamoto was an Edmonton Oiler entering the last year of a $3.1 million AAV contract. On June 29, Edmonton traded Yamamoto to Detroit, along with forward Klim Kostin, in a cap clearing move.

Detroit “strongly considered” keeping Yamamoto after the trade but reportedly “couldn’t make moves to make it work.” So the Red Wings bought out the winger’s contract on June 30; Detroit took some dead money on its cap, and Yamamoto became a free agent on July 1. (For an explainer on buy outs, look here.)

24 hours later Yamamoto was a Kraken, signing a one-year, one-way, $1.5 million contract with Seattle. The winger will play the entire 2023-24 season at 25 years old and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season. This means that, if the fit works, the Kraken are in position to retain Yamamoto going forward. On the other hand, if team and player don’t see eye to eye on value, the Kraken will face a similar conundrum to what it faced with Sprong and Morgan Geekie this offseason: Do you risk arbitration with a down-lineup forward?

Kailer Yamamoto player profile

Age: 24
Born: September 29, 1998
Birthplace: Spokane, Washington, United States
Height: 5’8″
Weight: 153 lbs
Shot: Right

2020-21Edmonton OilersNHL5281321269
2021-22Edmonton OilersNHL8120214140-1
2022-23Edmonton OilersNHL581015252412
Recent statistics; source: HockeyDB

How does he look on the ice?

Check out all of Yamamoto’s shifts from the Edmonton Oilers’ April 11, 2023, game against the Colorado Avalanche here: first period and second and third periods.

My two cents: The first thing that stands out about Yamamoto is his (lack of) size. Only one player in Capfriendly’s database of active players played even a single NHL game last season at less than Yamamoto’s listed weight of 153 pounds. That player is Matthew Phillips of the New York Islanders, and he played only two games. Only three players played a game last season while measuring in shorter than Yamamoto: Phillips, Blake Lizzotte, and Cole Caufield. 

Lizzotte is a wrecking ball forechecker, weighing in at 175 pounds, and Caufield is an offensive sniper. Yamamoto doesn’t have a carrying trait like those players. He is quick on his feet and has above-average speed, but he is not a blazer. He has very good but not elite hands. His shot isn’t particularly hard. He’s willing to throw a check, but his hits are more disruptive than punishing. 

Yamamoto’s physical and skill profile are quite literally without comparison in the NHL right now. How has he made it work? It’s with hockey sense and attention to detail. 

Yamamoto is active in the defensive zone shadowing his check and pressuring the opponent at critical moments. His defensive stick is effective. While takeaways is an imperfect, subjective statistic, Scott Malone of ROOT Sports noted that Yamamoto was 14th in the NHL with 2.81 takeaways per sixty minutes of ice time, tied with Yanni Gourde.

Once he successfully tracks down a puck on defense he is highly efficient at getting the puck out of the defensive zone. As noted below, his defensive zone analytics have been consistently above average. Per HockeyViz, he suppressed opponent shots at a rate 4 percent better than average at even strength. These skills also serve him well on the penalty kill, where he has been an above-average second unit contributor for the Oilers.

Visualization by: HockeyViz

In the offensive zone, his NHL role has been two-fold. First, he hunts pucks on the forecheck following uncontrolled entries. Second, after his team gets control, he uses his quickness and savvy to get to the net front for tips and re-directions while Edmonton’s stable of skilled shooters swarmed around the perimeter. His shot chart (see to the right) is essentially just a pile of dots in the slot. For a team like Seattle that generated more shots from the outside rather than in close, Yamamoto’s skill set fits. He’s not a traditional hulking presence at the net, but his ability there fills a Seattle need for an interior scorer.

In the below clip, he pressures the puck below the goal line, forces a turnover, drops the puck for Connor McDavid, and moves immediately to the net front to create chaos and look for a rebound.

In this clip, Yamamoto again pressures the puck carrier down low and contributes to an Edmonton takeaway. He then moves into the high slot and tips in a point shot.

This final clip from a game against Seattle is fairly typical of his offensive-zone positioning. He gets net-front position by his quickness and anticipation, rather than brute force. Then, when a lane opens, he is strong and skilled with his stick to redirect the puck into the back of the net.

Combine Yamamoto’s size with his fearless net drives and forechecking, and it is reasonable to be concerned whether he can hold up long term. Last season Yamamoto spent 41 days on injured reserve and missed 24 games. On the other hand, he was relatively healthy the previous two seasons, missing only five games total across those two years. Will he hold up moving forward? It’s a risk, but one that a team like Seattle, with its depth of forwards, can afford to take on.

Is there untapped potential in Yamamoto?

Since Yamamoto has been well-known in Washington State for a longtime, it is easy to forget he is not yet even 25 years old. In fact, he is two months younger than the recently departed Morgan Geekie. For those opining patience on Geekie’s skill game due to his age, the same argument can be made with respect to Yamamoto. And Yamamoto comes with a much stronger amateur pedigree than Geekie: Both drafted in 2017, Yamamoto went 22nd overall whereas Geekie went 67th.

Beyond that, I am intrigued by Yamamoto because his usage in Edmonton may have hidden some underlying skills that he should get a chance to display in Seattle. New responsibilities could be for the better or the worse, of course, but I see reasons for optimism that a new role will help him elevate his game.

1. Transition skill

In Edmonton, the Oilers transition game plan was clear: get the puck to elite puck possession forwards in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

An example comes at 3:24 in the video above. Yamamoto has the puck along the boards breaking out of the defensive zone with Draisaitl to his left. With just a single defender ahead, Yamamoto could have advanced the puck, skating wide while the German center drove the net. Instead, Yamamoto immediately deferred to Draisaitl to allow the superstar the opportunity to dictate the play in transition.

To be clear, this was probably the “correct” hockey play because Draisaitl can navigate zone entries like few in the NHL. Corey Sznajder’s AllThreeZones data tracking put Draistail in the 94th percentile in the NHL in total zone entries. (McDavid ranks even higher, in the 98th percentile.) But Edmonton’s approach forced Yamamoto into a very deferential and passive role through the middle of the ice. Sznajder had Yamamoto in just the 15th percentile among NHL forwards in total zone entries.

In Seattle, Yamamoto will get opportunities on the puck in the transition game. He won’t be paired with any transition game “monster” because Seattle doesn’t have one. This will require him—but also empower him—to seize control of plays more often and press an advantage when he sees it. I saw some evidence he has the skill to possess the puck under duress, press his advantage with speed, and dictate the play.

More opportunities like this should get him involved in transition scoring opportunities. In Edmonton, the large majority of his chances came off the forecheck or on net-front tips, which is a valuable role, but a very difficult way to generate volume offense.

2. Offensive-zone playmaker

I also see some untapped potential in Yamamoto as an offensive-zone distributor and shooter. This last year with Edmonton, he was most frequently paired with Draisaitl and one of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Evander Kane. All of those players are clear top-six caliber, skilled, puck-dominant players in the offensive zone. This left Yamamoto to assume a different role.

As mentioned above, he was the lead forechecker and drove to the front of the net when the team was established in the offensive zone. Except on cycles, he rarely possessed the puck in the offensive zone. If the puck hit his stick, it was most commonly followed by an immediate shot, tip, or pass.

Seattle’s forwards have various strengths, but the lines aren’t constructed quite so asymmetrically. I expect Yamamoto will have the opportunity to possess the puck a bit more offensively. When he does, he shows creativity and even flashes the ability to handle the puck and finish.

As a facilitator, the talent is there with increased opportunities. Even in his off-puck role, he was above average in a metric tracked by Corey Sznajder called “chance assists,” which are passes that lead to a scoring look. In this clip, Yamamoto has the skill and sense to find Kane with an accurate cross-slot pass for a tap-in goal. There is more in the tank for Yamamoto on plays like this.

3. Power-play scorer

Yamamoto was heralded during his time in juniors and the AHL for his power play skill. In Edmonton, he couldn’t break through and establish a role on the best unit in the NHL. Seattle is far from the best, and down a key right-handed cog after the loss of Daniel Sprong. Yamamoto won’t take Sprong’s role as a one-timer threat, but there could be opportunity as a bumper (if Oliver Bjorkstrand shifts out, for example) or net-front presence. In either position, his hand-eye coordination and hockey sense could be helpful attributes.

I am less confident in Yamamoto’s likelihood of breaking through on the man advantage, but the same passing and puck-handling skills mentioned above should play in this role. At least he’ll get a look on the power play in Seattle. He didn’t really have a chance in Edmonton.

What do the analytics say?

Yamamoto’s impacts on shot outcomes match the “eye test,” showing slightly above-average work on the defensive side, and approximately neutral impacts offensively. His contributions are average on the power play in limited playing time—though Seattle should welcome an “average” power play unit—and again slightly better than average on the penalty kill. This isn’t the profile of a “needle-mover,” but I doubt Seattle is looking to him to be a top-of-the-lineup player in any particular game situation. As a complimentary piece and a bet on untapped potential, he is a good addition.

Where does he project with the Kraken?

As we stand in early July, I think Yamamoto has an inside track to a roster spot and a role. Again, I should be clear again that Yamamoto is not, and doesn’t project as, an above-average top-six producer. I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to play to the level of recent under-appreciated additions Eeli Tolvanenen or Oliver Bjorkstrand either. He is more of a calculated gamble on mid-range upside.

Yamamoto has played mostly on the right wing. This past season, the Kraken deployed righty Jordan Eberle, lefty Andre Burakovsky, righty Bjorkstrand, and righty Sprong on the right side for the most part. With Sprong out the door, there is a vacancy at the bottom of the depth chart. Clearly, Yamamoto is a contender. But there are others.

Kole Lind, coming off a strong AHL regular season and an outstanding playoff run, is a right wing and in the conversation for the role. He doesn’t bring the same speed or possession skill Yamamoto does, but he is bigger, more physical, and has a a heavy, accurate shot.

Alternatively, lefty Tye Kartye could earn a role following his impressive playoff stint with the Kraken, which would mean he or (more likely) Brandon Tanev would slide over to the right side on the fourth line, playing the off wing.

As of July 6, this looks like a three-way competition for one wing role, with the runner up taking the thirteenth forward position and the other player likely destined for Coachella Valley (or another team on waivers). While Kartye projects best long term, I’d rate Yamamoto as the best bet to hold the winger role on opening day. Seeing value in keeping all three players, I’d also tentatively project Lind as the thirteenth forward with the waivers-exempt Kartye in Coachella Valley to start.

Where do the Kraken go from here?

The Kraken have filled out their NHL depth chart at wing and on the blue line. Any further additions in those areas are likely to be opportunistic rather than necessary. I do think the Kraken will strive for one more move if a top-tier talent becomes available, but it is by no means a sure thing. In the relatively unlikely event the team moves on from defensemen Vince Dunn or Will Borgen due to a contract impasse, a countermove would likely be necessary to fill the vacated blue line spot.

Beyond that, I think the Kraken have one more hole in the depth chart—fourth-line center. If Shane Wright is ready to seize a role, there is no issue. And John Hayden could play there if a better alternative is not forthcoming on the market. But I suspect the Kraken will look to add to their center depth. Pius Suter is the best center remaining on the market. Free agent Tomas Nosek might fit the team need best as a faceoff specialist and penalty killer.

More reading on Yamamoto

Daniel Nugent-Bowman of The Athletic analyzed Yamamoto’s tenure with Edmonton after his trade to Detroit and explained why Yamamoto was a prime candidate to move out given Edmonton’s cap crunch.

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