Heading into the 2020-21 NHL season, expectations were high for Los Angeles Kings’ former 11th overall pick Gabriel Vilardi. After a fantastic 2019-20 campaign for the Ontario Reign and a magnificent ten-game spell with the Kings, he was poised to take on a big role during his rookie season.
Sadly, just like the team, he struggled to find consistency and will be hoping to take a big step up in performance next season. Continuing with the players’ grades series, we will be looking back at and grading Vilardi’s season.
Vilardi’s Season Statistics
- 10 goals, 13 assists, 23 points, minus-8 in 54 games played, average time on ice (ATOI) of 14:45
- 47.2% Corsi for percentage at even strength (CF%), 19 blocked shots, 18 hits, 13 takeaways, 12 giveaways, six penalty minutes, 45.9% faceoff win percentage (FO%)
I hate to say this, but Vilardi was disappointing this season. As someone who loves this player and thinks he will be a massive piece for the Kings in the future, it pains me to write that. However, sometimes you must call a spade a spade. Coming into this season, it was expected that he would take on the role of second-line center and begin to cement himself as a top-six forward for the Kings. Simply put, this didn’t happen. Were expectations set too high for a 21-year-old with only 10 games in the NHL before the season started? Possibly, but that doesn’t change the fact that he underperformed this season.
His 10 goals and 13 assists sat him tied for sixth in Kings’ scoring with Andreas Athanasiou and Trevor Moore — both of whom ended with the exact same goals and assists numbers. It was really the middle of this season that killed Vilardi — his 10 points in the first 21 games were a decent return for a rookie.
Unfortunately, he would only post six points in his next 23 games, scoring zero goals during that period. During this slump, he was taken off the second line and was also a healthy scratch twice, first on April 9 and again on April 11. He would finally break his scoring drought on April 28, when he netted a power-play goal against the Anaheim Ducks in a 3-2 loss. This goal would re-ignite some offense for him, as he’d post seven points in his final 10 games. In this stretch, he’d also make, maybe, the best play of the season for the Kings when he set up Lias Andersson’s game-winner against the Ducks on April 30.
Seeing Vilardi re-discover some offense over the last 10 games was probably the second most exciting thing for Kings’ fans at the end of the season — second only to the debut of Quinton Byfield. Plenty of things factored into his increased production to end the season — decreased pressure, increased confidence, and a new line all played a role. In my opinion, it was his new line that had the biggest effect.
It seemed like he struggled all year to find chemistry with his linemates, with coach Todd McLellan frequently making changes to try and get the most out of the Kings’ forward group. It seemed like McLellan possibly struck gold near the end of the season when he paired Alex Iafallo and Andersson on Vilardi’s wing. This line consistently created offense and gave the Kings a much-needed scoring threat outside of their first line. Considering the success they found towards the end of this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are the second line to start next season.
Even though it was a disappointing season in many ways for Vilardi, Kings fans shouldn’t lose any excitement for the highly-rated forward. Him playing the full season in the NHL this year was a massive accomplishment — it’s easy to forget how drastically his development has been hampered by injuries. Between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 seasons, he missed a significant number of games, including essentially not playing in the 2018-19 season. Chronic back issues had been a problem through much of his junior career and saw him miss about half of his last season in juniors. His back got so bad that he missed almost the entire 2018-19 season, appearing in only four games that year. Fortunately, after taking nearly 12 months off during that season, his back problems seem to be a thing of the past. These injuries had a serious impact on Vilardi and stripped him of multiple off-season’s worth of development, the player himself stated.
“First time in three years now that I actually got to spend the summer working on getting better and not focusing on getting my body back to playing again. So, that was really, really good for me.” (From “LA Kings: Gabe Vilardi ‘looks like a different man right now physically,'” Ryan Cowley, Rink Royalty)
Considering he missed three straight summers’ worth of development — often the time players make the biggest improvements — it’s truly amazing that he was still able to compete at a high level in the NHL this soon. It’s a testament to the players’ immense skill and incredible work ethic. It is well documented that he used his first “healthy” offseason in a while to pack on a noticeable amount of muscle. Assuming he looks to add even more this coming offseason, it’s entirely possible that we see a truly terrifying player next year. We might begin to see him dominate physically along the boards and below the hash marks like he did in juniors if he adds more muscle.
Another important thing to remember regarding his development — his position. While he has spent most of his time with Ontario and Los Angeles at center, his long-term future is likely at right wing. He spent a lot of his first season with the Windsor Spitfire at right wing, and with the Kings log-jam at center, he’ll likely return to the wing before too long. I see him developing similarly to players like Elias Lindholm or Sam Reinhart.
Both drafted as centers, they’ve been most productive when moved to right-wing, allowing them more offensive freedom and the ability to be a more complementary player. Like both players, his ability to play multiple positions and fill in at center will only increase his value. The future is very bright for the Kings, and Vilardi should be a big part of that future.
Vilardi’s Overall Grade: C
A strong final 10 games saved him from having a lower grade here. However, his inconsistency and massive drought during the middle of the season can’t be ignored, meaning he’ll end with a ‘C.’ Another reason he didn’t score lower was his production compared to other young players. His 23 points saw him finish tenth in rookie scoring, tied with Ty Smith, and 14th in points for players under 22, tied with Smith and Rasmus Dahlin. When compared to his peers, he had a solid season. Unfortunately, he was expected to be more than “solid” this season, and he was unable to fill the role expected of him. Taking his failure to meet expectations and his performance compared to other young players into consideration, an average ‘C’ grade seems more than fair. That being said, I can’t wait to see what he brings next season, and I imagine his grade next year will be much higher.