With physical play well beyond his five-foot-eight, 153-pound frame, the 23-year-old right-winger has become an annoyance for opponents and a coveted asset in the locker room.
“You don’t play in the National Hockey League at his size unless you have a giant heart,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft. “So he’s got a strong willingness to play the game hard, to go to hard areas. And he’s had success.”
Read more: Edmonton Oilers blow out Kings 6-0 in Game 2
Yamamoto, picked 22nd overall by Edmonton in the 2017 NHL entry draft, cemented his spot in Edmonton’s lineup this season, posting career highs in games played (81), points (41), goals (20) and assists (21).
He finished the campaign with six points (two goals, four assists) in the final five games.
“I started out a little rough but towards the end of the year, I think I’ve definitely picked it up and I think my game is definitely trending in the right direction,” Yamamoto said ahead of Edmonton’s decisive 6-0 win over L.A. in Game 2 on Wednesday.
The victory evened the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with Game 3 set to go Friday in L.A.
Yamamoto has continued to roll early in the playoffs, putting up two points — including his first post-season goal — in Game 1 on Monday.
The performance was a “perfect example of a Yamamoto game,” said linemate Leon Draisaitl.
“He’s in your face, he keeps pucks alive, he makes good plays when he has the puck,” he said. “Just an all-around really good hockey player. He had a great first game and yet we need him to continue to play like that.”
Last season, Yamamoto suited up for all four of Edmonton’s first-round playoff games but struggled offensively as the Jets swept the Oilers in four games.
It’s an experience he’s taken to heart.
“I think I learned, you know, don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” he said. “I feel like I got so amped up, I wanted that physicality like all the time and I just forgot about the puck a little bit. And this year, I’m trying to still play that way but focus on the puck more.”
Yamamoto’s play away from the puck has been noticeable early in this year’s playoff run. Up against some of the Kings’ top players, he’s constantly annoying opponents, Draisaitl said.
“He plays inside of your equipment, he gets underneath you, sometimes probably underneath your legs, too, somehow,” the star sniper said. “I think he’s a pest to play against. He’s not fun to go up against.”
Hailing from Spokane, Wash, Yamamoto always aimed to be a tenacious player who went to the hard areas. He also earned a reputation as an offensive threat, putting up 99 points in 65 games with the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs in 2016-17.
Growing up, he idolized similar players — undersized guys who found ways to make an impact with their skill and physicality, like Martin St. Louis, Tyler Johnson, Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau.
“I think ever since I was a little kid you know, I’ve always been the smallest on my team growing up,” he said. “So I think having those attributes to my game definitely helps.”
Yamamoto’s game has grown in recent years, said Woodcroft, who’s coached the young forward both at the American Hockey League and NHL levels.
Back when he broke into the league, Yamamoto struggled offensively, scoring a single goal across the 26 games he played in his first two seasons.
He spent time with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL where Woodcroft said he built some offensive confidence and consistency.
“I think just as young players navigate their way through the National Hockey League, that’s what they learn to do,” the coach said. “And that’s what separates the best players in the world from everybody else is that they have a level of consistency and measure of consistency to their game. And we’re starting to see that more and more with Yamo’s performances.”
Part of what stands out about Yamamoto now is his drive, Woodcroft said.
“He’s somebody who comes to the rink every day with a purpose. He’s excited about playing in the National Hockey League and demonstrating his skill set,” he said.
“And I think he’s a very very good complimentary piece in our top couple lines. He helps people, he helps do work for people. And as a result, he’s a popular linemate.”