In this third installment of “Kings-in-Waiting”, I focus my attention on Los Angeles Kings top prospect Gabriel (Gabe) Vilardi. The 18-year-old center was taken by the Kings with their first-round pick, 11th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Like fellow King-in Waiting Matt Villalta, Vilardi was born in the hockey breeding grounds of Kingston, Ontario. Also like Villalta, Vilardi grew up honing his craft within the Greater Kingston Frontenacs system. Upon tallying 48 points in 31 games in his bantam year with the Frontenacs, Vilardi’s parents felt it was prudent to send their son to the Canadian International Hockey Academy (CIHA), a private co-ed boarding school near Ottawa where tuition could run up to $40,000 a year.
There he continued his rapid development that culminated in a blistering 47 points in 24 games during his minor midget and midget years. Vilardi’s coach, Guy Girouard, had nothing but praise for the young center when asked by TheWhig.com.
“Gabe is a coach’s dream,” Girouard said. “He was always looking to improve his game, whether he was stickhandling in the hallway, juggling, foam-rolling in the gym.”
Since leaving the CIHA, the academy has been keeping tabs on Vilardi’s progress:
— CIH Academy (@CIHAcademy) January 31, 2017
Standing at an appealing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at a respectable 185 pounds as a 16-year-old, Vilardi’s combination of size and production propelled him into the upper echelon of OHL draft-eligible prospects.
Taking his Talents to Windsor
Vilardi became the apple of the Windsor Spitfires’ eye and, as a result, was selected second overall by the club in the 2015 OHL Draft. He was viewed as a defensively responsible, 200-foot center that possessed a lightning quick shot and release. Furthermore, Gabe owned the sought-after ability to get open as well as showing the propensity to routinely disseminate the puck to teammates in advantageous positions.
In his rookie campaign with the Spitfires, Vilardi amassed a respectable 38 points in 62 games. The club managed to secure the second spot in the league’s Western Conference but was ousted by the Kitchener Rangers in five games in the Conference Quarterfinal. Although Vilardi did register four points in the series, he collected an underwhelming minus-4 rating overall. Despite the disappointing end to the season, the playmaking centerman was rewarded by being named to the OHL Second All-Rookie Team.
A Memorable, Memorial Year
The 2016-17 season was one that Vilardi will not soon forget. Firstly, his team was announced as hosts of the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup, which automatically secured their position in the annual, four-team extravaganza that hosts champions of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL.
Despite being a lock for the Memorial Cup, the Spitfires wanted to prove that the invitation was warranted. As a result, the team improved its point regular-season point total by three and again secured the second seed in the Western Conference. Vilardi took his game to another level and ended up leading the team in points with 61 in just 49 games. Playing alongside future NHL first-rounders Mikhail Sergachev and Logan Brown, Vilardi became the unquestioned leader of the Spitfire brigade.
Unfortunately for the Spitfires, the team ran into a buzzsaw by the name of the London Knights in the Conference Quarterfinal. The series went to seven games, with the visiting Knights prevailing to advance to the Conference Semifinal. Vilardi, who notched six points in the series, and his teammates would now have six weeks of game inactivity to prepare for the Memorial Cup. Let’s just say that the team’s lengthy hiatus from competitive hockey was a blessing in disguise.
The Spitfires steamrolled through their opponents to the tune of a 3-0 round-robin record that landed them in the tournament final against their OHL rival, the Erie Otters. With the aid of two assists from Vilardi, the Spitfires went on to thwart off the Otters, 4-3, to win the club’s first Memorial Cup since 2010. Vilardi finished fourth in Memorial Cup scoring, with seven points in four games, and secured a spot on the tournament’s all-star team alongside teammates Sergachev and Michael DiPietro.
Vilardi was experiencing his hockey zenith at the right time, as he was eligible to be taken in the summer’s NHL Draft.
A Royal Theft
Some draft pundits, including NHL.com, had projected Vilardi going as high as third overall in the draft. Since his first year in the OHL, he had added 15 pounds to his mouthwatering frame. Curtis Joe of Elite Prospects had the following scouting report on the towering forward in advance of the draft:
“A dangerous two-way center who stays poised, calm, and composed in all situations. Individual puck skills are at an elite level and he is able to play a finesse role. Makes excellent decisions with the puck and showcases a well-rounded understanding of both the offensive and defensive game. Uses his size to his advantage and keeps the opposition guessing because he is able to do so many different things, including: taking it himself to the net and powering through, making a seeing-eye pass, or holding off to piggyback a possession play. He already plays a mature yet dynamic game, and that indicates success for a long time at higher levels. All-in-all, a dexterous 200-foot player who is a consistent threat every time he is on the ice.”
Kind of sounds like Anze Kopitar 2.0, if you ask me.
It was much to the delight of newly-appointed general manager Rob Blake that the consensus top-five pick inexplicably and serendipitously fell to the Kings with the 11th pick. With an aging forward core and a sky-high ceiling for the young forward, the decision to snag Vilardi was a no-brainer.
Injury Delays NHL Debut
Upon being drafted by the Kings, Vilardi identified that he could augment his skating in the summer months with the help of a private skating coach in Minnesota, in advance of the the team’s rookie camp.
“They believed in me,” Vilardi told NHL.com. “I want to return the favor in the future, obviously. I know that’s a major thing for me to work on and I’m going to continue to work on.”
The center was looking to turn heads and potentially secure a spot on the veteran-laden Kings lineup. Alas, it was not meant to be for the 18-year-old, as back spasms hampered his camp attendance and all but forced the club to send Vilardi back to his junior club.
Coming Back Home
Having achieved the pinnacle team accolade in the junior ranks, Vilardi was in a position to put his summer injury disappointment aside and manifest the motivation required to further develop his game in the OHL. His level of motivation was supercharged when he was traded to his hometown Kingston Frontenacs in January.
The move has galvanized the youngster to take his game to new heights. Vilardi finished a shortened 32-game season with a staggering 58 points. He made several of his 22 goals look like child’s play:
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) February 8, 2018
Vilardi and his Frontenacs teammates are in the midst of a heated Western Conference Final series with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Through 15 games, Vilardi has totaled an absurd 11 goals and 11 assists. Should the Frontenacs go on another run, the youngster could very well be in line for more hardware.
Predicting Vilardi’s Ceiling
Vilardi fits the mold of a future L.A. King top-six forward to a T. The right-handed center is big, highly skilled, defensively disciplined and a proven winner. Although he is not blessed with blazing speed, his uncanny ability to find areas of opportunity in the offensive zone is something that simply cannot be taught.
With incumbent stars Kopitar and Jeff Carter likely remaining the club’s top two centers for the next few seasons, Vilardi will either need to move to the wing to crack the top-six or slot into a third-line role and work his way up. The Kingston native will likely have to compete with promising youngster Adrian Kempe and fellow King-in-waiting, Jarret Anderson-Dolan, among others, to secure a salient role with the team next season.
One thing is for certain — once the young center gets his feet wet, it will only be a matter of time before he wins the hearts of Kings fans worldwide.
NHL Projection: Productive Top-Six Forward (ETA: 2018-19)