Folks, it’s time for the final stretch. The regular season is over, draft eligible players are looking for the next step in their careers and training camps are drawing near.

But for some players, the Under-18 World Hockey Championships are the final chance to prove yourself worthy of a good draft spot heading into the 2016 NHL Draft in Florida. Every year, the United States have been a dominant force at the tournament, winning nine gold medals since the tournament first took place back in 1999. This year, the tournament is on home soil in Grand Forks, North Dakota, so there’s extra pressure for the team to win. The team was on top of the world in Switzerland, beating Finland 1-0 in a thrilling 60-minute contest.

Can they do something similar this year? Let’s take a look at five players that should make a big effort at the upcoming Under 18’s, set to take place from April 14th-24th.

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Photo from Pucked in the Head

5. Kailer Yamamoto, Forward: Yamamoto is one of just three players on the Americans that don’t play for the United States Development Team Program, but he’s definitely deserving of being on the squad. A former member of the U.S. National U17 Team, Yamamoto posted 57 points in 68 games in his debut WHL season a year ago with the Spokane Chiefs. This year, Yamamoto, a former fifth round pick by Spokane, finished with 71 points in 57 games, blowing away Dominic Zwerger’s total of 55 points in 65 games for second in team scoring. Yamamoto had six points in as many games with the United States at the Under-17’s a year ago and then finished off the season with another seven points in four games at the Ivan Hlinka, so he’s definitely no stranger to playing internationally. It’s crazy to think that Yamamoto won’t even be eligible for the NHL Draft until 2017, but that should only show how good he’s going to be if the team decided to bring on to the team of players that are a year older. Yamamoto has a chance to be a leader for the Americans, and with the potential of playing at the Ivan Hlinka and Under-18’s one more time, his stock will only continue to rise.

Jason Wachter/St. Cloud Times

Jason Wachter/St. Cloud Times

4. Ryan Lindgren, Defenseman: The Americans have produced many tremendous defensemen in recent years, and Lindgren is definetly one of them. A captain for the Americans at the World Under 17’s a year ago, the defensive defenseman will represent the Americans for the first time at an IIHF competition. An alumni with the Shattuck St. Mary’s Bantam, Lindgren had four goals and 20 points in 55 games for the Under-18 USNDTP this past season According to Dennis Schellenberg from The Hockey Writers, “Lindgren has the potential to become a solid stay-at-home defender at NHL-level who plays a solid defensive minded game using his strong defensive awareness. He also has the potential to grow into a more offensive role with the time”. Lindgren has a good chance of being chosen in the second round of the draft, and with very strong skating skills, there’s a lot to like about the Minnesota native heading into both the tournament the NHL selection draft.

Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images

Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images

3. Clayton Keller, Forward: Keller is a product of one of the most incredible hockey development programs in the world, the US National Development Team Program. A potential top ten pick in 2016, Keller is consistently the best forward on the ice against skaters three years older, a sign of greatness that is hard to find in most players. While small (5-8/150), Keller is an incredible skater with a great stride and a high top speed. Every time he touches the puck, you can expect to almost always see him make a great play, whether it be a great long range pass or a powerful slap shot. The Boston University commit has played in two previous international tournaments, scoring 22 points in 13 games combined at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the previous World Under-18 championships. If that isn’t good enough, Keller finished first in USDTP U17 scoring with 59 points in 45 games last year. He easily topped that in 2015-2016, scoring 30 goals and 87 points in just 53 games. That total helped break a massive record, just beating Jeremy Bracco by a single point to become the all-time leader in USDP points with 169, beating the likes of Phil Kessel, Jack Eichel and 2016 top prospect Auston Matthews. No question, this kid is going to be special.

Jason Wachter/St. Cloud Times

Jason Wachter/St. Cloud Times

2. Kieffer Bellows, Foward: Expected to go in the first round of the NHL Draft this year, the son of former NHLer Brian Bellows is a tremendous skater with big-time offensive instincts. Coming off of a 73 point campaign in 2015-2016, Bellows has never represented USA at an official IIHF event, but did record five points in four games with the Under-17 team last year. A power-forward, Bellows isn’t afraid to rough up his opponents before firing the puck towards the net, something he typically does quite well. Last season, Bellows scored 33 goals and 52 points in 58 games for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, a stat putting him on the map heading into the current season. Bellows is ranked 16th by the ISS draft rankings and is projected to get drafted as a top ten skater by the NHL, but like any top draft prospect this year, he has a chance to further himself with a strong, end of the season tournament result.

Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images

Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images

1. Chad Krys, Defenseman: Krys is an extra special case at the tournament this year. A top 2016 NHL Draft prospect, Krys actually played for the United States Under-20 World Junior team that won the bronze medal in January, earning valuable experience with talented prospects. Krys is a joy to watch skate with the puck and had a very strong season with the USNDTP last year, posting 25 points in 44 games as a strong two-way defender. Krys won a goal medal at the 2015 U18’s World Juniors, just months after leading the U17 WHC with seven points as a defenseman en route to a silver medal. A two-way defensemen, Krys’ strongest offensive asset is his passing, using his solid vision to find unique lanes throughout the ice. This past season, Krys had 26 points in 46 games for the Americans, a year in which he worked a bit more on coverage in his own zone. Once considered a top ten prospect heading into the draft this year, Krys was ranked 53rd in the final North American skaters rank, but he still has a chance to prove himself to be a much better defenseman than people like to think.

Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

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