The Los Angeles Kings have struggled to start this season, currently sitting at 1-4-1. Their biggest issue has been finding goals outside of their top line, and of the many players who have started the season slowly, one has been young center Gabe Vilardi. The 2017 11th overall pick has yet to find his feet at the NHL level, struggling since his bright 10-game cameo in 2020, where he posted seven points.
The team thought it had found the right combination for him in preseason, with his line of Lias Andersson-Vilardi-Vladimir Tkachev impressing, but the success hasn’t carried over into the regular season. It must be noted that Andersson hasn’t played a game yet due to an injury sustained before the season started, but I’m not convinced him coming back from injury will fix this issue. Instead, I think the Kings should move Vilardi to the right-wing, and in this article I will discuss why this is a good idea.
Vilardi’s Past Experience at Wing
While Vilardi is a natural center, he has played wing in the past, and you could argue that the most impressive play in his draft year was at wing. He played the second half of the 2016-17 season on Logan Brown’s wing, as the Windsor Spitfire went on to win the Memorial Cup. Some scouts even viewed him more as a wing than center heading into the 2017 draft, with question marks about his defensive game concerning them. He did play some wing during the 2020-21 season, and I think it’s time to move try this again.
Why Playing the Wing Helps Vilardi
Moving him to the wing would not only help mask some of his deficiencies, but it can also help emphasize some of his strengths. One of Vilardi’s biggest deficiencies is his defensive game, he simply has not developed into a defensively responsible center. He struggles with his positioning, and can often get caught puck watching, losing his man in dangerous areas. He is also very poor in the faceoff circle, as this season he is winning just 38% of his faceoffs, and has only won 46.3% over his career. Unfortunately, having poor defensive positioning and being bad in the faceoff circle makes it very difficult to be successful as a center in the NHL.
This positional change would also help Vilardi, as it would allow him to focus on what he does well, creating offense. He’s one of the team’s best players at carrying the puck into the zone with control and creating chances for himself and teammates. He has also turned into more of a shooter than he was expected to, he only had three more assists than goals last season, and according to AllThreeZones.com micro stats data, he is posting more shots per 60 than primary shot assists. Meaning, he is shooting the puck more often than he is making passes that lead to shots. So, what we have is a player who doesn’t take faceoffs well, struggles in his own zone, excels at carrying the puck in with control, and tends to shoot more than pass.
To me, that’s a player who should be on the wing, not playing center. He is also someone who could benefit from playing with Alex Iafallo and Phillip Danault, as they desperately need someone who can finish the chances they create. I thought that player would be Arthur Kaliyev, but he was recently sent down to the American Hockey League, so that line needs a new winger. I think Vilardi would help relieve some of this line’s finishing issues, while Iafallo and Danault would help Vilardi with his defensive issues.
His Future is at Wing
Another big reason I believe Vilardi should be moved to the wing is the fact that his future in the Kings organization is almost certainly in that position. With Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte both developing well, and Rasmus Kupari looking solid in his cameo at center, I can’t imagine a world where Vilardi is a long-term option at center. Byfield is the future number one center, and Turcotte’s defensive solidity makes him a more enticing second-line center. There is a logjam at center in the Kings organization and it makes sense to start his development as a right-winger.
I don’t think this is a knock on Vilardi either, as several players who were drafted as centers have to make the move to the wing. Center is likely the most difficult position to play in the NHL, as it carries so much responsibility across the full length of the ice. Some notable players to have made the switch to wing early in their career have been Martin Necas, Carter Verhaeghe, and Pavel Zacha — all good players, who have been made better players because of their position change. Even Vilardi’s teammate Adrian Kempe had to make the switch. We have even seen older players, or players who have experienced injuries like Vilardi has, make the switch, players like Steven Stamkos, Joe Pavelski, and Claude Giroux have all made the switch to the wing in recent years. Again, playing center in the NHL is very difficult and even some of the league’s most talented players can’t deal with the increased responsibility that comes with the position.
There’s a Great Player in Vilardi
Over the last 10 months, some Kings fans have begun to sour on Vilardi. While I understand the frustrations, I hope the fanbase keeps faith in the former 11th overall pick. He is an immensely talented player, who has faced challenges that would ruin plenty of people’s careers. Each player develops at a different pace and sometimes players need to make changes in their game or position to reach their potential. In my opinion, Vilardi needs to be moved to wing to reach his full potential. Some fans don’t think his play warrants a move up in the lineup, but the team needs to find some way to get the second line scoring, and putting one of your most talented players on the line might help.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.