Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.
When right wing Kailer Yamamoto skates onto the ice for Spokane of the Western Hockey League, his coach, Don Nachbaur, sees flashes of one of his former players.
Nachbaur coached Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson with Spokane in 2010-11. In Yamamoto, a top prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft, Nachbaur sees the same skill and determination in another sub-6-foot player.
Yamamoto (5-foot-7, 153 pounds), leads Spokane and is in the top 10 in the WHL with 30 goals and 62 points in 42 games. He's No. 17 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters and will play in the Canadian Hockey League/NHL Top Prospects Game at Videotron Centre in Quebec City on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports).
"I don't think size matters," said Yamamoto, 18. "It's what you have in your heart. Guys are going to have some weight on you, but you've got to be quicker and faster than them."
Nachbaur found Johnson (5-8, 185) had a similar approach.
"I coached Tyler Johnson and he had the same mentality when he played the game," Nachbaur said. "Didn't matter about size. He always went to the puck and tried to get there first. Didn't matter if the guy was 6-6 or 5-4. And Kailer has that. When you're a small guy you have to be smart, and we saw his smarts. He never gets hit flush. He's got a tremendous ability to change gears on pucks. When guys have him lined up, it's an extra stride and he's past them. He's very elusive and Tyler had that in his game. He's a very elusive player."
Johnson is more than just a role model for Yamamoto.
"When I was growing up, his mom taught me how to skate," Yamamoto said. "We're actually really good family friends with him."
Johnson, who at 26 is eight years older than Yamamoto, would have practices and skating lessons before the younger kids took the ice.
"He was always the littlest kid out there," Johnson said. "I tried to mess with him and teach him different things and it was unbelievable. He'd be able to do things that I couldn't even do."
The friendship has included offseason skating sessions, and Yamamoto said he has gotten great advice from Johnson.
"Just be a leader on the ice and off the ice," he said. "I always look up to him because he's so mentally focused on our workouts and whatnot. Just getting to the next level, talk about how to get to the next level and whatnot. So it's good."
Yamamoto, a native of Spokane, is used to succeeding regardless of the age or size of the competition. He often played on youth teams with his brother, Keanu, 21, a forward who plays with him in Spokane.
"I just learned to adapt and play with bigger guys," Yamamoto said. "That really helped me growing up, playing with bigger guys. And going into the [WHL] and being a smaller guy my whole career, that really helped me out a lot."
Nachbaur said he and his staff knew about Yamamoto during his minor hockey days in Spokane, but really took interest when he began playing with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings. Spokane selected Yamamoto in the fifth round of the 2013 WHL Draft, and in Yamamoto's first training camp, Nachbaur recognized they had found a special player.
"We thought he could thrive, just because in his age group he had skill," Nachbaur said. "We saw that, we saw his niftiness with the puck, and his hockey sense was outstanding. But he was very competitive, and to play in the Western Hockey League you have to be a competitive guy whether you're a big guy or more so when you're a small guy. He had that when he was in bantam. And his first camp with us he really excelled. The things that come to mind with him is he's very creative but he never goes second to pucks, which is a compete thing. That's a really important step to playing pro. You're going to play against bigger guys, you have to be competitive. But we saw that at an early age with him. He always excelled in his age group. He was always one of the top players even when he was one of the younger guys on the team."
Yamamoto helped the United States win the bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. He was the third-youngest player on the team but tied for the tournament lead with seven goals.
His linemate was Clayton Keller, who was taken by the Arizona Coyotes with the seventh pick of the 2016 NHL Draft. Keller, also a smaller-stature player at 5-10, 168 pounds, said he was impressed by how Yamamoto approached the difficult areas of the ice.
"He's a special player," Keller said. "Not the biggest guy, like me, but he's good in the corners. He's small and shifty, he can pass the puck and shoot it. … Definitely plays bigger than he is. He plays like he's 6-2 but he's 5-7. He's a special player."