Gabe Vilardi was the Los Angeles Kings’ first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, 11th overall. He immediately became one of the organization’s best prospects after the cupboard was barren for a few years. It’s been over five years since that draft, and a lot has changed, both for the Kings and Vilardi himself. So far this season, the 23-year-old has carved out an important role on the team, and it means a lot for both him and the organization moving forward.
Vilardi’s Hot Start
To begin the season, Vilardi started the season on the third line. The team was looking to form a line with two kids, as Vilardi and Quinton Byfield also spent time together in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Ontario Reign. It resulted in goals in four of the first five games. After a rough game in Pittsburgh in which the team lost 6-1, coach Todd McClellan decided to shake things up, and the new lines resulted in Vilardi getting moved to the top line.
Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar formed a dangerous duo last season, normally playing with Alex Iafallo. Iafallo is currently on injured reserve, and with Dustin Brown retired, they decided to put Vilardi on the first line. The results so far have been excellent. Albeit in a small sample size, the Kings have created 59 percent of the expected goals with this trio on the ice. Expected goals measure the number of shots a team gets, weighted for the chance that shot is a goal, and 59 percent is a very good rate when compared to other lines around the league.
The goal-scoring didn’t slow down for Vilardi once he joined the first line as he scored four goals in his first five games with Kempe and Kopitar. Many expected Kevin Fiala to take this spot, and he initially did, but the Kings eventually decided that it was better to let him drive his own line. He proved that he was very good at that last season with the Minnesota Wild, and with the second line showing chemistry from last season, he slid down to the third line.
Fiala has managed to lead the team in points despite the move down, contributing a lot on the first power play unit. Vilardi has also been on this unit and has scored twice. Playing on the top power play was not something anticipated for him coming into the season, but it’s an added bonus to a Kings team that needed scoring depth on the wings.
Vilardi’s Breakout Puts Rest of Kings’ Lineup in Place
The Kings are usually a team looking to add more scoring, and this summer was no different. They lost Brown and Andreas Athanasiou in the offseason, and needed to add some wingers. They made the Fiala trade to get one that had the potential to be a game-breaker, as they were left with a logjam of young centers who could make an impact in the near future. Byfield and Alex Turcotte were both top-five picks that definitely wanted to break into the lineup on a full-time basis, and with the top two center spots locked in and the other prospects knocking on the door, Vilardi’s move to the wing was key.
It was obvious that the better chance for Vilardi to get playing time was to move to the wing. It wasn’t totally unfamiliar to him, as he played there during his junior hockey career. It was also a necessary move for him to stay in the lineup on a regular basis. Last season, things didn’t go the way he had hoped, and he got sent down to the AHL. That was not an option this season, unless he cleared waivers – which was unlikely to happen. Therefore, he had to prove that he could perform on the wing, and he’s done that so far.
It’s safe to say this has worked out for both Vilardi and the Kings. They now have scoring threats on the top three lines, as well as a fourth line that doesn’t drag the rest of the team down. This has also helped them stay afloat without Iafollo, who was the team’s fifth-leading goal scorer last season. Kempe has been in a slump as well compared to last season, so the Kings really have needed to find goals from different sources.
What Vilardi’s Performance Means for the Future
There are several things different about Vilardi’s game in 2022-23 compared to previous seasons. He is definitely shooting more, with a career-high 14.36 shot attempts per 60 minutes this season. That number was down at 9.56 last season and just 7.71 in the season before that, following the typical pattern of a center not shooting as much as a winger does. Of course, a lot of his success has been driven by a high shooting percentage that is likely unsustainable, but the fact that he is getting more shots off shows improvement in his game.
Vilardi’s 10 goals are tied for the ninth-most in the NHL, with many of the forwards above him being established star players. After his entry-level contract expired last season, he signed a one-year deal with a minuscule $825,000 cap hit, which is certainly looking like a bargain now. He’s surely due for a raise next season and is just one of a few forwards that the Kings need to re-sign. They have $16 million and change in projected cap space for next season, and will also need a plan for their goaltending with Jonathan Quick’s contract expiring.
Vilardi will have arbitration rights so his next contract could earn him a pretty penny and be somewhat tough for the Kings to squeeze him in under the cap. However, it’s a problem they don’t mind having, as his goal-scoring has been necessary to keep them afloat in the standings. They are currently above average in goals per game with Iafallo only playing four games, and he deserves some credit for that. With Vilardi’s emergence, the Kings currently sit in second place in the Pacific and have one of the more well-balanced forward groups in the division.
Nick Vazquez covers the LA Kings for The Hockey Writers. He has been a hockey fan for his entire life, and playing the game since age 6. He loves watching and analyzing the game in different ways, and exploring the great stories from different players, teams and fans.