Kings’ Prospect Preview: Gabe Vilardi

I kicked off the Los Angeles Kings prospect preview series with Arthur Kaliyev a few days ago, and now it’s time for Gabe Vilardi. The team’s 2017 11th overall pick who’s struggled at times throughout his NHL career. What will his 2022-23 season look like and what expectations should there be for him?

Vilardi’s 2021-22 Season

Vilardi’s 2021-22 season was a disaster to put it nicely. In what should have been a breakout year for him, he was sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) after just seven games in October. After a promising preseason where his line with Vladimir Tkachev and Lias Andersson looked fantastic, it all came quickly crashing down. The team sent him down so he could transition into a full-time winger and regain some of the offensive confidence he clearly lacked.

Gabe Vilardi
Gabe Vilardi, LA Kings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Vilardi was fantastic in the AHL, scoring 38 points in 39 games while playing a massive role on the Ontario Reigns’ league-leading power play. His play earned him a call-up in March, as the Kings were hit hard by the injury bug, but he failed to replicate anywhere near his AHL production. Alongside fellow first-round picks Quinton Byfield and Rasmus Kupari, he showed flashes of why he is such a highly rated prospect amongst certain fans, but couldn’t sustain that play consistently enough. This issue plagued that whole line, as some games, or even just periods, were brilliant, but in others, they struggled.

Related: Kings’ Prospect Preview: Arthur Kaliyev

It didn’t help Vilardi and his line that the team was entrenched in a playoff race, leading head coach Todd McLellan to rely heavily on his veterans, giving this young line a short leash. Still, a player with nearly a full season worth of games under his belt heading into last season, everyone expected a bit more from him. He played in two of the team’s playoff games but averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time across the two games. It wasn’t all bad for him, though, as he lit up the AHL and earned his call-up, but at 23 years old, time is running out for him to establish himself on the Kings.

2022-23 Season Preview

Previewing Vilardi’s 2022-23 season is very difficult because there’s a chance he isn’t in the lineup come opening night. He’ll be fighting for a bottom-six role, one that doesn’t suit him, in training camp and there’s no guarantee he wins that fight. No longer waiver eligible, if he’s not cracking the lineup, he’ll either be a healthy scratch or traded. A trade at this point doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Kings, because his stock is at an all-time low, especially if he can’t earn a spot on the roster. However, having him sit on the bench as a healthy scratch doesn’t help anyone either.

Gabriel Vilardi LA Kings
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Vilardi’s an interesting case because he is a player whose numbers don’t match the eye test in many ways. Even last season, his analytics were solid and pointed to a player who shouldn’t be sent down. Even though his raw production has been good before last season, in 2020-21, he finished third on the team in points per 60 minutes. It’s very clear that he simply doesn’t play a style of hockey that suits what McLellan wants from his players.

McLellan wants his team to play aggressively on the forecheck, create a lot of offense off the rush, and play at a very high pace. None of which Vilardi excels at. He isn’t a good forechecker, in quality or quantity, he prefers to create off the cycle, and he likes to slow the game down. If he is to succeed with the Kings, either Vilardi has to change his plays, or McLellan needs to shift his expectations. Something I’m not sure will, or maybe even should, happen.

If Vilardi can continue to improve his skating over the summer, that will help him be more effective on the rush and the forecheck. Still, I’m not confident that he can change the way he plays enough to earn McLellan’s trust. The team should be using him more on the power play this season though, as the Kings’ power play was awful last season and he can help with that. Unfortunately, McLellan loves to lean on his veterans and I can’t imagine him getting significant power play time, hopefully, new assistant coach Charlie Hiller can change that this season.

Expectations for Vilardi

I have two sets of expectations for Vilardi, one optimistic and one pessimistic. The optimist in me thinks he can break into the Kings lineup and establish himself as a full-time NHL player this season, while the pessimist says he’ll be traded before the deadline. It’s very difficult to set expectations for him without knowing what, if any, role he has on this team. The Kings need to decide soon if he’s part of the future, or trade bait this season.

Gabriel Vilardi LA Kings
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

A season where Vilardi only plays half of the team’s games in a bottom-six, forechecking role does nothing for him and the AHL isn’t an option. If he plays the full season, I’d expect him to score slightly above his career 82-game average and grab 40 or more points. Again, this is very dependent on his role.

A Make-or-Break Season for Vilardi

At 23 years old, this feels like Vilardi’s last chance to stick with the Kings. If he can’t carve out a full-time roster spot, he’ll either be traded or leave in free agency after this season. I still have confidence that he will be a solid contributor in the NHL, but I’m not confident that will be with the Kings anymore. As I said, I don’t think he fits how McLellan wants to play and there isn’t much to be done about that. The skill is there, he just needs the right situation to show it off.

Next up, we’ll preview a big season ahead for Quinton Byfield.