The Los Angeles Kings have developed one of the best prospects pools in the NHL and are now moving to the stage of their rebuild where they should have an impact, like Arthur Kaliyev, Sean Durzi, and Jordan Spence. Not everyone is playing as well, though.
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Gabriel Vilardi is having what has to be one of the worst seasons of his career. He was sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) after seven games in October and has struggled to make an impact since his return to the lineup in March. With just three goals and zero assists through 23 games this season, there are serious questions about his future with the Kings, and the team will have to make some difficult decisions about the former 11th overall pick. Here’s a breakdown of those decisions.
Vilardi’s Career So Far
The Kings selected Vilardi 11th overall after two fantastic seasons with the Windsor Spitfires. In his draft year, he scored 61 points in 45 games, tying him for second in points per game (P/G) by draft-eligible players with Owen Tippet, the player drafted one spot ahead of him and behind only Nick Suzuki. With 29 goals and 32 assists in 2016-17, Vilardi was seen as a big-bodied, dual-threat center who dominated down low and along the boards. An excellent goalscorer and playmaker, there was a lot to like about his game.
After he was drafted, the injuries began. He had an incredible post-draft season, finishing second in the league in P/G, behind Jordan Kyrou. His 58 points in 32 games showed off the elite offensive toolset the Kings saw when they drafted him. Seeing him play just 32 games was unfortunate, but the production was elite when he was healthy. Excitement was high, and it seemed clear Vilardi was ready to turn pro. The injuries only got worse, though, and he played in just four games during the 2018-19 season; a lingering back injury caused him to miss almost the entire season. It was a tough setback for him, but optimism remained high.
Finally healthy for the 2019-20 season, Vilardi put up an impressive 25 points in 32 games, which eventually earned him a call-up to the Kings in late February. It was a dream start for Vilardi, scoring on the first shot of his first shift before collecting an assist later in the game. It felt like a coming-out party for the 20-year-old, who had gone through so many struggles up to this point. His solid play continued, registering seven points in 10 games before the league was shut down due to COVID. It was an unfortunate end to an incredible season, but everyone was excited by what they saw from Vilardi.
Heading into the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, the plan was for Vilardi to take the next step in his career, filling in as the second-line center behind Anze Kopitar. Hindsight being 20-20, this turned out to be a mistake, as it was clear he was not ready for such a big role. He struggled through large parts of the season and, at times, lacked confidence.
Looking back, Vilardi was a lot better than he was given credit for, and the sky-high expectations negatively impacted the perception of his season. His .43 P/G was decent considering the Kings’ offensive struggles, and he posted good analytics.
According to Evolving-Hockey.com, Vilardi finished the season with 4.7 even-strength goals above replacement (GAR), ranked third on the team, and .9 wins above replacement (WAR), also third on the team. According to TopDownHockey and JFresh’s model, he was just shy of the 75th percentile in WAR, placing him in the top 25 percent in the league. Those numbers indicate a player who, at the very least, had a positive impact on his team. There were concerns with Vilardi, mainly in his defensive play and inability to win faceoffs, but there were more positives than negatives during this season, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that.
Vilardi’s 2021-22 Season
Vilardi finished the 2020-21 season strong with five points in his last six games, and most people were excited about what he could bring for 2021-22. The Kings signed Phillip Danault, giving Vilardi the perfect opportunity to excel in a more sheltered third-line role. He put together a very strong training camp and looked incredible during preseason on a line with Lias Andersson and newcomer Vladimir Tkachev. Unfortunately, Andersson got hurt during preseason, Tkachev struggled at 5-on-5, and Vilardi could not save a sinking ship that was the third line. After posting just one point in the first seven games along with terrible analytics and entering COVID protocol, the Kings sent him down to the AHL.
While this surprised many and angered some, it was a smart decision, as his future was clearly not at center, and he could use the time in the AHL to make the switch over to the wing and regain some confidence. He did exactly that, grabbing 38 points in 39 games before returning to the lineup after the Kings were hit hard by injuries. He was placed on a line with fellow young forwards Quinton Byfield and Rasmus Kupari, which looked great and has been very fun to watch. However, there has been little production from them. Vilardi has just two points, both goals, since his return to the lineup, and the initial hype surrounding his return has died down.
His play has looked much better since his return. He’s been stronger in board battles, made fewer mistakes in his own zone, and looks more engaged on the forecheck. His defensive numbers especially have improved, posting 1.7 defensive GAR, according to Evolving-Hockey, while sitting in roughly the top 23 percent of players in defensive impact, according to JFresh and TopDownHockey’s model. He’s also created plenty of high-danger chances, according to Corey Sznajder’s data tracking. So, there have been positives, but just three goals and zero assists in 23 games are difficult to justify, and he was scratched for last Saturday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and will likely be scratched again on Tuesday.
Should the Kings Move on From Vilardi?
Now comes the ultimate question: should the Kings move on from Vilardi and try to trade him this summer? A pending restricted free agent, he will likely be signed to a short-term “prove it” deal. However, with the Kings returning to the playoffs and turning the page on their rebuild, they may want to cash in on a struggling player. There are plenty of pros and cons to both sides, and the answer will likely come down to how much interest there is in Vilardi from other teams.
The Case for Keeping Vilardi
The first, and perhaps biggest, reason to keep him is a simple one: his trade value has never been lower, and there are serious questions about what kind of return they would get for him. Earlier in the season, rumors surfaced that the Arizona Coyotes wanted him as part of any hypothetical Jakob Chychrun trade, but I doubt he would be a major piece of that deal at this point. He could be a sweetener in a bigger deal, but considering his struggles and the question marks surrounding his future, it’s unlikely he fetches a large price on his own.
The other case for keeping him is that he’s undoubtedly still a very talented, high-potential player. He still has excellent hands, a good shot, vision, and size. Some players develop at a slower pace and have to take a step back before moving forward. Fellow 2017 first-round pick Robert Thomas had a terrible 2020-21 season with just 12 points in 33 games before posting a point-per-game campaign this season. Similarly, 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson failed to register more than eight goals in a season before this one, scoring 36 goals at the time of writing. Sometimes it just takes players a while to figure it out and the right situation to succeed. I don’t expect that kind of improvement from Vilardi, but it’s always possible.
The Case for Moving Vilardi
While yes, Vilardi’s trade value is the lowest it has ever been, it could still go lower if he continues to struggle. Some feel that trading him now, while he still holds some value, is better than holding onto him until he holds no value, and that’s a valid opinion. There’s also the issue of where you can fit him into the lineup moving forward.
The Kings are overloaded with forward prospects and will have to make room for them soon. Samuel Fagemo is on pace for 30 goals in the AHL, Jaret Anderson-Dolan is nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL, and a healthy Alex Turcotte could easily compete for a spot next season. With all of these players fighting for a roster spot, it’s difficult to see where Vilardi would fit in. The Kings need to improve their lineup next season and make room for other prospects, meaning trading Vilardi could make a lot of sense.
What Should the Kings Do?
It’s difficult to know what the Kings should do. There’s merit to both sides of the argument. As someone who still has faith in Vilardi and will always have an affinity for prospects, I believe the Kings should stick it out with him. However, my brain tells me they should move him for a left-shot defenseman or goalscoring right-winger as the concerns surrounding his future continue to grow. Blake will have to make some very difficult decisions this summer, with Vilardi’s future being possibly the most difficult decision. There hasn’t been much indication about what the Kings will do with Vilarid, outside of a few passing comments.
Blake had this to say during the team’s state of the franchise meeting in February:
“We see him playing for the Kings, eventually. … He needs to be involved in power plays and playing with pace. He’s been moved to wing and is adjusting nicely. There will be a situation where he gets back into the Kings lineup. For now, he’s doing what he needs to do and he’s over a point-per-game.”Rob Blake ( from, ‘LIVE UPDATES: State of the Franchise Comments from Blake and Robitaille,’ Mayors Manor, Feb. 26., 2022)
The organization seems to still have faith in Vilardi. Of course, don’t read too much into one quote — this is a ruthless business — but it is worth remembering that the Kings still see him as a part of their future. I have no idea what will happen moving forward, but one thing is for sure, Vilardi’s future will be a headache for Blake, and there is no objectively correct decision to be made.