Gabriel Vilardi was drafted 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2017. In 2017-18, he spent his time developing in the OHL, but he suffered an injury that limited him to only skating in 32 games. He did manage to amass an impressive 58 points in that season, though. (From “Gabe Vilardi’s back injury weighs on Kings as rookie camp nears,’ The Athletic,08/30/2018).
In 2018-19, he was once again hindered by injuries, as he only managed to play in four games. He missed games right off the bat in 2019-20, but once he started playing, he was impressive, posting 25 points in 32 games played with the Kings AHL affiliate, Ontario Reign. This warranted him an opportunity to play in the NHL, which he got.
10 Terrific Games With LA
Vilardi was called up by LA for the final 10 games of the 2019-20 season, where he played terrifically. In those 10 games played, he posted an impressive three goals and four assists for a total of seven points. His 0.7 points per game pace (P/GP) was quite notable.
For perspective, another player to recently have a short stint in the NHL towards the end of a season was Vancouver Canucks’ winger Brock Boeser. In 2016-17, he skated in nine games and posted five points, a 0.55 P/GP. The season afterward (2017-18), he finished second in Calder Trophy voting behind New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal.
Vilardi’s offensive play and his potential to replicate it made him one of the favourites to win the Calder Trophy in 2020-21. Currently, he is 11th in betting odds to win the award. However, his offensive play was not the only part of his game that shined in his 10-game stint, as he excelled defensively.
Vilardi blocked four shots (0.4 per game) and threw one hit. He also had one takeaway and zero giveaways. Although these numbers wouldn’t be impressive for a veteran forward, they are superb for a debuting forward. The most important aspect to his defensive play was his face-offs.
Vilardi took 92 faceoffs, and won 49 of them, which is equivalent to a 53.5 win percentage. A 53.5 face-off percentage puts a player among the league’s premier players in the face-off dot. In 2019-20, Islanders’ forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizikas both posted a 53.5 faceoff percentage, tying them for 32nd in the league (among players who took the 100 most faceoffs).
Vilardi’s fantastic play resulted in the Kings finishing 2019-20 with a bang. They went on a seven-game winning streak to finish off the season, and their overall record with him in the lineup was 8-2-0. These wins didn’t come against teams that struggled as the Kings did in 2019-20; in fact, five out of the seven wins came against teams that made the qualifying round of the NHL postseason.
The Kings have only played in five games in 2020-21, and it’s quite possible Vilardi will turn things around. However, his play thus far has been lacklustre compared to his offensive explosion in 2019-20.
In five games played, Vilardi has managed to net two goals, while having zero apples. His play in the goals department has been great, but his overall production is down. He has a P/GP of 0.4, which marks a steep decline from his 0.7 P/GP in 2019-20. His takeaway-giveaway ratio has been the opposite of last season, as he has zero takeaways and one giveaway.
His blocked shots per game (0.6) and hits per game (0.2) are both slight improvements over last season. However, his biggest defensive asset (face-offs) has seen a significant crash. In 2020-21, he has taken 81 draws and has won 36. This gives him a face-off percentage of 44%, which is much lower than his 53.5% in 2019-20.
3 Possible Reasons for the Struggle
Three potential reasons for Vilardi’s struggle have emerged so far. Firstly, he could be suffering from an ailment, as he was one of five Kings players to miss part of the team’s training camp due to being ruled “unfit to participate.” Even if he is not currently suffering from an ailment, missing part of training camp could be affecting his play, as training camp was the first time the team got on the ice together in months.
Secondly, it could be due to Vilardi not being on the second line. In 2019-20, longtime Kings center Jeff Carter was injured for the final 10 games of the season. This allowed Vilardi to slot in on the second line. Carter earned second-line duties in 2020-21 and has seen a career renaissance this season.
Additionally, recent high-risk, high-reward acquisition Andreas Athanasiou has been skating on the second line, where he has been remarkable. Blake Lizotte rounds out the line, and his ability to dominate in the face-off dot has helped this line create offence.
In the Kings most recent game, Dustin Brown was placed on the Kings’ third line to balance the talent throughout the lineup. He recently scored his 300th career goal and is a consistent 20-goal scorer. Perhaps his presence will be what Vilardi needs to begin potting the assists as he did in 2019-20.
The third and most terrifying reason for the Kings could be that 2019-20 was a mirage. 10 games isn’t a large sample size, meaning he may not be able to sustain that level of play throughout a full season. With that said, five games isn’t a large sample size either. Although this is Vilardi’s rookie season, he did play in the NHL last year, he could just be going through a form of a sophomore slump, which has happened in the past.
What it Means
Vilardi could be struggling for a number of reasons. Although his shot-blocking and hitting are improved, his scoring touch has remained the same and the rest of his game has seen a decline from the standard he set in 2019-20. This isn’t a sign for concern yet – Brown should be able to help him get more assists, it’s early in the season, and Vilardi is skating in a less prominent role than last season.
I am a lifelong hockey fan who will be covering the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks here at The Hockey Writers. Before joining The Hockey Writers I spent two years blogging about hockey.
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