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John Blanchette: Mature attitude helps Spokane’s Kailer Yamamoto earn spot on Oilers roster

First-year forward Kailer Yamamoto (56), a first-round pick from the Spokane Chiefs, made a big impression during the NHL preseason, earning a spot on the Edmonton Oilers’ opening night roster. (Derek Cain / AP)
First-year forward Kailer Yamamoto (56), a first-round pick from the Spokane Chiefs, made a big impression during the NHL preseason, earning a spot on the Edmonton Oilers’ opening night roster. (Derek Cain / AP)

A perverse obsession with the next thing became sport’s designer drug some time ago, lapping the passé high of getting off on something as mundane as today’s game.

Now fans compulsively track recruiting – and so does the FBI, it turns out – and hope a high school sophomore’s cap bearing the local college’s logo might be a tell. Baseball devotees take a breather from seamhead stats to gorge on Top Prospects lists from the rookie leagues. Nothing is more interesting than next year’s depth chart.

As a result, we’ve largely been robbed of the Great Roster Surprise – which is why Kailer Yamamoto is the buzz of Edmonton this week.

The hometown Oilers open the National Hockey League season on Wednesday night at Rogers Place against the despised Calgary Flames, and while the roars at introductions will go to the the Connor McDavids and Cam Talbots and other established stars, expect a big hand for the little stranger from Spokane, too.

“It’s been surreal up to now,” Yamamoto said on the eve of his NHL debut. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like opening night.”

Maybe because he had no expectation of being a part of it.

“I would have never thought of coming up here and producing like I have,” he admitted. “You always want to give yourself a chance, but it’s definitely surprising.”

To him and nearly everyone else.

Yes, he could be a one-game-and-home rookie, or a nine-and-home – the number of games the Oilers can keep him and not burn his Entry Level Contract status for next season – or he could be back in Spokane any time in between. This happens often enough to 19-year-olds, the NHL club doling out a nice reward for a strong training camp along with the message that there’s work to be done.

Or the Mead High School grad could keep doing what he’s been doing: earning it.

He led the NHL in preseason goals with five along with Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine – the Nos. 1 and 2 overall picks from the 2016 draft. He had a point in all but one of Edmonton’s six exhibitions, a pair of goals in his Rogers debut against Vancouver and the ultimate winner – his first – against Calgary which left him “with the craziest feeling I’ve ever felt,” he said.

This didn’t earn him an upgrade from the chair in the middle of the dressing room where he changes clothes, or get him out of puck shagging – the usual rookie burdens. But it did keep paying off in ice time, and not just with the long-shot fifth-liners with whom he’d been practicing. He shared a line with McDavid, last year’s NHL scoring leader, and has been working on the second unit power play. On Wednesday, he’ll team up on the Oilers’ second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic, the former Memorial Cup MVP.

“It was eye-opening,” Yamamoto said, “just being able to play with such talented players. Being on the ice with them shows you just how much more skilled they are.”

And obviously Yamamoto was showing them something, too.

“They’ve helped me so much,” he said. “They’re always talking to me, making sure I’m playing my game and helping me with my confidence. They’ve been telling me I’m here for a reason and, ‘You can make these plays.’ Hearing that from them is reassuring.”

Now, it isn’t as if Yamamoto is an out-of-left-field commodity, being the Oilers’ first-round entry draft pick and 22nd overall. And yet even that ranked as somewhat of a surprise, if only because general manager Peter Chiarelli was, for nine years, GM of the Boston Bruins where size “was part of a winning formula and I’m wired into that. When it comes to smaller players, I have an instinctive hesitancy,” he confessed to Canada’s Sportsnet.

At 5-foot-8 and a mere 155 pounds, Yamamoto seems to have an instinctive hesitancy to be defined by size, however.

Yet the odds reveal another bias. Only five of 2016’s first-round picks stuck in the NHL beyond nine games, and just three from 2015. No pick 20th or lower has managed to go the distance his rookie year since David Pastrnak with Boston in 2014 – and the last WHL first-rounder who did was Portland’s Seth Jones the year before.

But Yamamoto’s scene-stealing already prompted coach Todd McLellan to ship 2016 first-rounder Jesse Puljujarvi down to Bakersfield for the second time in a year.

They may still decide the 82-game NHL grind is too much for a teenager who weighs less than a keg of beer. That’s a meeting Yamamoto isn’t going to worry about.

“Hopefully, I can keep a spot on the roster by not looking too far ahead,” he said.

Quite a concept. And in today’s sports climate, almost revolutionary.

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