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Is Kailer Yamamoto Too Good For the Leafs to Pass Up?

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s this brilliant offensive winger, but he’s small.

Spokane Chiefs v Calgary Hitmen Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

There’s this wonderfully obvious and yet brilliant observation I hear a lot from commentators when I watch soccer: goals win games.

I mean, it doesn’t take a theoretical physicist to figure that out. But it’s a nice reminder that at the end of the day, soccer (and hockey) is a goal scoring competition. Every player you acquire should assist you in maximizing the difference between the goals you score, and the goals you allow. For forwards, the most direct way they can do that is by scoring lots of goals.

Enter Kailer Yamamoto.

Kailer Yamamoto Stats

Season Team League GP G A TP PIM
Season Team League GP G A TP PIM
2013-2014 Los Angeles Jr. Kings U16 T1EHL U16 34 17 23 40 14
2014-2015 Spokane Chiefs WHL 68 23 34 57 50
Team Gold USA-S16 5 2 4 6 -
U.S. National U17 Team USDP 7 3 4 7 2
USA U17 WHC-17 6 3 3 6 2
USA U17 (all) International-Jr 4 0 6 6 2
2015-2016 Team Kelly USA-S17 5 2 3 5 2
Spokane Chiefs WHL 57 19 52 71 34
U.S. National U18 Team USDP 9 7 7 14 12
USA U18 Hlinka Memorial 4 4 3 7 14
USA U18 WJC-18 7 7 6 13 12
2016-2017 Spokane Chiefs WHL 65 42 57 99 46
Player statistics powered by www.eliteprospects.com

Yamamoto is currently ranked anywhere from the mid-teens to the end of the first round in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. As with most prospects in this tier, his ranking is volatile. It wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see him slip to the 2nd round, or for someone to take a flier on him early.

Consensus Rankings

Publication/Pundit HockeyProspect.com ISS Hockey Future Considerations McKeen's Hockey NHL Central Scouting Craig Button
Publication/Pundit HockeyProspect.com ISS Hockey Future Considerations McKeen's Hockey NHL Central Scouting Craig Button
Rank 22 22 15 29 17 (NA Only) 14

Yamamoto is the extreme case of the ‘small but skilled scoring winger’ archetype. He’s already drawn comparisons to another undersized former Spokane Chief - Tyler Johnson. He won’t go undrafted like Johnson did, but nonetheless, Yamamoto can be a divisive player.

He’s clearly better at the junior level than a lot of players who will be drafted above him. But ultimately, we’re not drafting players for junior. We’re drafting them for their NHL potential. So what’s the argument for and against the Leafs taking him at #17 or #18 overall?

The Case For

Scoring is Good

As mentioned up top, goals win games. And Yamamoto is good at scoring goals. According to prospect-stats.com, he had the most goals of any U18 WHL player (age is calculated as of the start date of the season). Among U18 WHL players with appreciable game-time, he leads in goals per game as well, ahead of potential #1 overall pick, Nolan Patrick.

No matter how you slice it, he’s the best U18 goal scorer in the WHL. 5v5? 1st. 5v5 on a per-game basis? 1st. 5v5 on an estimated per-minute basis? 1st again, among players with notable game-time. The guy can flat out score at the junior level. And it’s a well-established fact that players who score a lot at the junior level overwhelmingly tend to be the ones who make it into the NHL, and succeed in the NHL. Being a killer goal scorer is a great place to kick off your prospect resume.

Yamamoto isn’t just a scorer, though. He’s an elite playmaker as well. He ranks 4th among U18 WHL players in primary assists per game, both in all situations, and at 5v5. All this sums up to him having the most primary points and primary points per game in the WHL (again amongst U18 players), both at 5v5 and at all situations. Basically, he’s an offensive dynamo at the WHL level. If you’re looking at offense, his statistical resume is among the very best in his draft class.

He Drives the Bus

Another positive about Yamamoto is that it is very clear he’s the one driving the bus on his team. Spokane was a bottom-feeder this year, and while they were better offensively than they were defensively, they were below average in both categories. Yamamoto led his team in scoring (obviously), with the next highest scorer on his team finishing 23 points below him. That teammate is Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who is generally ranked as a fringe first rounder. Not chopped liver, himself. And Yamamoto has 30% more points than him. That’s a very positive sign for a prospect who will make his living based on his offense.

Scouts Wax Poetic About His Skill

Now we delve away from the stats and look towards what the experts say about Yamamoto’s game. And man, they are effusive.

Steve Kournianos says

Small in stature but a giant when it comes to creating plays, he has an extremely high IQ with vision already at an elite level. [...] Yamamoto is a fluid and graceful skater who skates with his head up at all times, and his ability to snipe off the rush or make precision passes makes him next to impossible to defend. He isn’t big, but he plays with bite and on occasion will duke it out with bigger opponents.

ISS Hockey hails his “fantastic speed” and “exceptional offensive skills”.

Meanwhile, Future Considerations has a selection of quotes about his game that are positively giddy, such as:

[...] small, speedy forward with excellent hockey sense and quick hands

[...] great overall quickness, first-step jump to create separation and an ability to alter speeds to create gaps

[...] sneaky and stealth-like in finding prime scoring ice, very creative with the puck and shows off creative hands

[...] is a force in possession as he likes the puck on his stick, and is dangerous as a set-up man or shooter in the offensive zone

[...] feisty on the forecheck, not physically, but uses his speed to force opponents into rushed plays while clogging up passing lanes with an active stick

[...] one of those rare wingers who has the ability to affect the flow of a game like a center, a very special talent, high octane and cerebral.

You get the picture. And even if you haven’t seen him play, these scouting reports probably give you a rough idea. A supremely skilled player who makes up for what he lacks in size with his offensive awareness, skating, puck skills, and competitiveness (whatever that means). If he was 6’0” with the same game, he’d be in contention for a top 10 pick, and maybe higher. But he’s not 6’0”. And that leads into...

The Case Against

He’s Real Small

No way to get around it. Kailer Yamamoto is small by hockey standards, and puny by NHL standards. Listed anywhere from 5’7” to 5’9”, and from 150lb to 165lb, he’s among the smaller players in his draft class, and certainly one of the smallest projected to be taken in the area where the Leafs pick.

Of course, size isn’t a be-all, end-all. There is no shortage of skinny and small hockey players who have gone on to be massive successes at the NHL level. The Leafs faced their own “is he too small” mini-controversy with Mitch Marner. The answer, resoundingly, was no. So it’s tempting to wave away the size concern with the idea that skill wins out.

However, it’s irresponsible to do so. Size DOES matter, and the difference between being 5’11” and 5’7” is significant. There isn’t an extensive track record of players that short becoming impact NHLers. It happens, but it’s certainly a disadvantage.* There’s a real concern that Yamamoto won’t have the physical tools he needs to succeed at the NHL level, where he’ll be in the 5th percentile in terms of height and weight, playing against the very best athletes the sport has to offer. It doesn’t mean he can’t do it, but it gives one pause. In many ways, this is similar to the dilemma Alex DeBrincat faced last year. And while he’s continued to light up junior in his draft + 1 year, the true test awaits him when he hits the AHL and NHL. The same will be true of Yamamoto.

*It’s also a disadvantage because being short hurts the chances of a NHL team taking a shot on you.

He’s an old 18 year old

Yamamoto is on the older end of his draft year. Born in September 1998, he has an age advantage on almost everyone he is compared to as a draft-eligible player. In some cases, that advantage is quite extreme. He’s a half-year older than Cody Glass, another WHL player with points out the wazoo (he ranks 2nd to Yamamoto in many of the scoring categories I mention above). 6 months may not sound like a lot, but at an age where drastic steps in development are taken every year, it’s significant. Yamamoto is still ridiculously potent on offense, but how much does his age advantage help?

When combined with his size, this can be a serious reservation for a team. If a small player is destroying everyone when it comes to scoring, it can be looked past. But if adjusting for age means that Yamamoto’s offensive production comes back to earth, then maybe it’s harder to convince your GM to pick the 5’7” kid. To be clear, I don’t know whether that’s the case. Age adjustments are not well fleshed out in the public sphere for draft-eligible players. If we use the method detailed by Rhys Jessop here, Yamamoto’s scoring essentially becomes identical to Glass’ (this is not damning in of itself - Glass is almost unanimously a top 15 prospect). So Yamamoto still is a great scorer, but he’s no longer lapping the field. Does that matter? When you might be 5’7”, yeah, it does.

Another small scoring winger?

This isn’t a fault of Yamamoto’s at all. But at this point the Leafs cupboard is full of players with similar profiles as him. Brendan Leipsic, Jeremy Bracco, Dmytro Timashov, Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore. The list goes on. They’re all players who excelled in lower levels despite their size, and are now mostly viewed as solid, B-tier prospects. But for the Leafs, with a depth chart a mile long at wing and an inch deep at centre and defense, does it make sense to spend a valuable asset at a position where you already have a very strong NHL core and development pipeline?

I know what you’re saying. BPA, BPA, BPA. Here’s the problem with BPA. It assumes you can concretely say that one 18 year old is a better bet than another 18 year old. That’s an easy choice when it’s say, Auston Matthews vs Patrik Laine. It’s even easier when it’s William Nylander vs Jake Virtanen (just as an example). But as you descend in the draft, the gaps between players generally get smaller and smaller. Can you really be confident that Kailer Yamamoto is the ‘BPA’ over someone like Nic Hague, or Callan Foote? If you’re super confident that one is better than the other, then go ahead. But more likely, there are points in each of the players’ favour, and the error bars on your projections for those two prospects overlap heavily. When do you start to look at positional importance as a tiebreaker?

Obviously, you should always restock your pipeline, at every position, throughout a draft. But at some point, positional scarcity has to matter. This isn’t necessarily taking Griffin Reinhart at 4 because you ‘need a defenseman’. It’s giving a potentially rare commodity a bump due to rarity and potential value to the team. Should that matter?

You tell me. Do you want Yamamoto to be the Leafs pick at #17 or #18? Sound off in the comments.

Watch him in action

This is from his 2015/2016 season, but it’s a nice watch.