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Scouting the 2017 NHL draft: Kailer Yamamoto is good at big hockey

Tyler Johnson can tell you, height isn’t everything.

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

For the Spokane Chiefs, Kailer Yamamoto is a hometown boy. Kailer and his older brother Keanu grew up not far from the rink, and when colleges began to express interest in their future as hockey players, so did the Chiefs, who'd kept an eye on their youth careers. Keanu was invited to training camp and made the team for the 2013 season, and his brother Kailer joined at age 15 a year later.

The Chiefs failed to qualify for the WHL playoffs, and after four years in the WHL, Keanu is moving on to hopefully play for a college team in Canada. Kailer's interesting hockey summer is just beginning after he finished 6th in the WHL scoring race.

When I started to research Kailer Yamamoto, a familiar name immediately popped up: Tyler Johnson, who also played for the Spokane Chiefs. During the summer, Johnson practices with both Yamamotos, and says that (as expected with brothers who have grown up playing hockey together) Kailer and Keanu egg each other on. In a profile of Kailer for the Spokane Spokesman, Johnson weighed in on the brothers’ competitive spirits.

“Even in the training room, they compete like brothers,” said Tyler Johnson, who trains with the Yamamotos during the offseason in Spokane, along NHL player Derek Ryan and several other local hockey products. “They won’t let one guy do anything more than the other. They always have to outdo each other.”

In return, the 5'9, 159 lb forward considers the similarly small Johnson something of a hero. "He's been a huge influence on me," Yamamoto said to The Hockey News. "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."

Tyler Johnson is not the only Johnson that shows up in Kailer's history. When Kailer and Keanu were learning to skate, Tyler's mother Debbie Johnson helped them get hooked on hockey. The Spokesman described the cuteness thus:

"Debbie Johnson, the mother of Tampa Bay Lightning forward and former Spokane Chiefs player Tyler Johnson, first taught the kids in a preschool skate class when each boy was about 3 years old. In many drills, Debbie gave them a stick and a puck to teach them stick handling."

Johnson also helped three-year-old Yamamoto with his moves, telling THW, "When he was three or four years old, he was trying moves that I was trying to do - and I was 11. 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."

Yamamoto's three-year career with the Chiefs has been impressive, totaling 79 goals and 134 assists for 213 points, good for 21st in career points in club history. For the US Under 18 team, Yamamoto helped earn Team USA a bronze medal in 2016, with 13 points in seven games.

So should Tampa Bay select another small, skilled forward from Tyler Johnson's old team, who was taught to stickhandle by Tyler and Debbie Johnson? When I reviewed video of Yamamoto, I was compelled to ask @el_seldo, “Does the WHL have crappy goaltenders, or is Yamamoto just that good?”

Yamamoto has the ability to dance the puck like his comparable small American player, Johnny Gaudreau. His skating ability and his passing ability has developed along with his ability to read the game. But despite all this, he’s fallen in some draft rankings due to his size. Tom Hunter of the Blogger’s Tribune goes in depth about size bias in his draft report on Yamamoto, over here, but one interesting thing he says is this:

The best example of the size bias comes when you compare Yamamoto to fellow WHL prospect Michael Rasumussen. Both players had very productive seasons. Despite having his season cut short due to injury, Rasmussen scored 32 goals and finished with the same 0.65 G/GP as Yamamoto – but that’s where the similarities end. When you look at the 5v5 stats of the two players, there is no comparison – Yamamoto was a significantly better player than Rasmussen. Looking at the above figure, you wouldn’t expect the player in orange to be the higher ranked prospect – that is until you remember that Michael Rasmussen is nine inches an 45lbs bigger than Yamamoto.

Al Murray, Tampa Bay's director of amateur scouting, has proven time and again that he’s not a size snob, so there is a hope that Tampa Bay will scoop up this player at 14th overall.

Where would yet another smaller skilled center fit in Tampa Bay’s system? Given Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson (oh and another short fellow named Martin St. Louis), he will likely have the opportunity to play if the Lightning selects him. Whether he plays center or wing in professional hockey will depend on how he develops his defensive game as well as his faceoff ability against bigger, stronger competition. The potential is certainly there for him to be a top six scorer.

Statistics:

Kalier Yamamoto Statistics

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
Kailer Yamamoto Elite Prospects

Table via Elite Prospects.

Highlights