Kailer Yamamoto (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
The Spokane Chiefs right winger has already led his team in scoring and he hasn't even been drafted yet. Find out why scouts are excited about this undersized dynamo.
PLYMOUTH, MICH. - Kailer Yamamoto hasn't made the U.S. world junior team yet, but if history is any indicator, he'll bring a ton of offense if he does make the squad. Though he is only 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Yamamoto has been lightning every time he has donned the Stars and Stripes.
His latest work was a seven-game, 13-point performance at the world under-18s, where he helped Team USA to a bronze medal. That was after his season with the WHL's Spokane Chiefs concluded, where he led that team in scoring despite being just 17. A late September birthday, Yamamoto is up for the 2017 NHL draft.
Currently playing at Team USA's world junior camp (NJEC), Yamamoto has an interesting family history; his grandpa is from Japan and his grandmother is from Hawaii. But his work on the ice is still the most intriguing thing about him.
Yamamoto's small stature and outsized play has some NHL scouts cautiously invoking the name Johnny Gaudreau when they talk about the Chiefs star and the cool thing is, he's a local. Born and raised in Spokane, Yamamoto and his older brother Keanu both left for a spell to play minor hockey in Los Angeles, but the two returned to play for their home WHL squad, a privilege for the local kid.
"I love playing there," Yamamoto said. "I love every home game. The city is unbelievable, too. Great downtown, Northside, South Hill, The Valley - it's just a great place to play and live."
Geography brought someone else important into Yamamoto's life, too: Tampa Bay Lightning center (and Spokane Chiefs alum) Tyler Johnson, whose mom taught Yamamoto how to skate.
"He's been a huge influence on me," Yamamoto said. "He's one of my role models. I definitely look up to him and I'm trying to follow in his footsteps to get to the NHL."
While Johnson somehow went undrafted out of Spokane, Yamamoto will be a hot commodity. And the Lightning pivot knows what he's capable of.
"When he was three or four years old, he was trying moves that I was trying to do - and I was 11," Johnson said. "And he was able to do some of them. It was always fun to go out on the ice with my mom and see what he could do."
But more importantly, Johnson saw the drive, hard work and speed that smaller players need to be successful at the pro level. Yamamoto has that relentlessness, according to the NHLer.
All that will serve the right winger well in his draft year. He'll have some weapons surrounding him in Spokane, including fellow draft prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Scoring shouldn't be a problem, so Yamamoto is concentrating on improving other aspects of his game.
"Just being more physically and mentally strong," he said. "I definitely need to gain some weight and when it comes down to the last game of the season I have to bear down and be a little more consistent."
Other than that, expect to hear his name a lot in 2016-17. And if he makes the U.S. world junior squad, expect a lot of scoring.