Kings Sending Vilardi to AHL Is a Win-Win Decision

On Tuesday morning it was revealed that the Los Angeles Kings are reassigning forward Gabe Vilardi to the American Hockey League (AHL).

Before the season started, the idea of sending Vilardi down to the AHL seemed almost impossible, as he finished last season strong, and put together a wonderful preseason. But after a rough start to the season, and other players stepping up, sending him down became a more realistic option. With Viktor Arvidsson and Lias Andersson returning to the lineup at the same time Vilardi was, the Kings decided sending him down would be the best option. It was a difficult decision, but the right one for both the player and the organization.

Vilardi’s Slow Start

It seems like so long ago that everyone was fully on the Vilardi hype train during preseason. The line of Andersson-Vilardi-Vladimir Tkachev tore its way through preseason and seemed like the perfect line to provide secondary scoring. Things fell apart quickly though, as Andersson was hurt before the season started and the line struggled out of the gate. Even after trying a few different linemates, Vilardi could not find the game we saw in preseason. He had just one point through seven games and his underlying numbers were worrisome.

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

They weren’t just worrisome, they were terrible. In nearly every category he was struggling to provide a positive impact. His possession numbers are some of the worst amongst the team’s forwards, with a 45 percent Corsi for rating and a 48 percent Fenwick for rating. Across a few line combinations, he was on the ice for zero 5v5 goals and three 5v5 goals against.

It isn’t a matter of being unlucky either, as he shows up very poorly for expected goals. The team has a 31.3 percent expected goals percentage with him on the ice, and a 57.65 percent expected goals percentage with him off the ice. In short, when he is on the ice, the team is expected to be scored on more than they score, and when he’s off the ice, they are expected to score more than the other team. While analytics don’t tell the whole story, when both your raw totals and underlying numbers look bad, it’s almost always because you aren’t playing well.

This is a Positive for Vilardi

While getting sent down often comes with a negative connotation, I don’t think that is always the case. Being sent down to rediscover your game can be a good thing, especially for a young player who looks so devoid of confidence. He will be given the chance to polish his game in an environment with significantly less stress and expectation, which can only be a positive. We’ve seen coach John Wroblewski’s ability to develop the 200-foot element of a player’s game before, and I’m confident he can do the same for Vilardi. Getting sent down at 22 years old is not the end of the world and this should help his game in the long term. Of course, this will only have an effect if the player is willing to put in the effort.

Related: Kings News & Rumors: Vilardi, Byfield’s World Junior Chances, & More

There is no questioning Vilardi’s immense talent, but one can question his work ethic and drive. Too often in games, he seems disinterested and lacks the dogged determination to be an effective player at the NHL level. I think he is a player who was significantly more talented, and often bigger than, his peers at every level prior to the NHL, so he never had to develop that determination and compete level. He just had to work hard enough to allow his natural talents to take over; unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the NHL. Being sent down to the AHL will hopefully be the wake-up call he needs to develop the mentality needed for the NHL.

Vilardi in Ontario

The next question becomes, what happens with Vilardi in Ontario? I wouldn’t be surprised if they use this time in Ontario to retrain him as a full-time winger. We saw the organization do this with Andersson last season and they might be thinking of doing it again with Vilardi. I’ve discussed in the past why he is more suited to play wing instead of center in the NHL and they might use this stint in the AHL as a time to get him more comfortable in this role. He might also get a chance to reunite with Martin Frk — the two had incredible chemistry during Vilardi’s first season of pro hockey in 2019-20, and putting them back together might help Vilardi.

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

I would have to imagine he is given top-six minutes and a spot on the top power-play unit. Being used in a more comfortable role should help him rediscover his game and will hopefully boost his confidence. He is coming into an Ontario Reign team that is dominating the AHL and his inclusion should only cement this dominance. He’ll be given the chance to play in a more suitable role and get more minutes.

This Isn’t the End For Vilardi

It’s important to remember that player development isn’t always linear, there will be bumps in the road and that’s okay. This is a player who is used to adversity as well; don’t forget he had to battle a serious back injury at a very young age. Vilardi won’t spend the rest of this season in Ontario and should be back before too long. I’d be willing to bet he comes back up as a better player as well. I hounded on his bad play earlier in the article, but I still have full confidence that he will become an impact player for the Kings in the future.

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