The L.A. Kings would answer the phone, even if there wasn’t much of a conversation to be had.
Attempts to pry Gabriel Vilardi from the club in advance of the trade deadline were lost causes, no matter the types of bounties dangled. For the Kings, who had traded first round draft picks at the 2011, 2012 and 2015 trade deadlines, and at the 2015 NHL Draft, it felt good to be so secure in their top amateur asset and their upcoming first round draft pick. “It’s nice to say, ‘no way,’” Assistant General Manager Mike Futa said.
With Vilardi, signed to a three-year, entry-level contract on March 1 – the first day teams can sign players on their reserve list to ELCs that begin the following season – there is bullish enthusiasm amongst those in management, scouting and development in watching the club’s first top-tier offensive prospect since Anze Kopitar was chosen 11th overall in 2005.
“There’s something about a scout, you go into a rink, and you have a special pride in what you’re seeing,” Futa said.Vilardi will take his 17 goals and 48 points with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs into tonight’s game at Oshawa and will continue a season that began in January after the forward who predominantly plays and projects as a center recovered from a back injury that kept him off the ice during the Kings’ development and training camps. Though he wasn’t able to work on the ice with the team’s highly thought of development staff, it was still highly beneficial for him to regularly be around NHL players as he spent the off-season recovering in Los Angeles. He couldn’t skate over the summer, but he was still able to soak everything in as he was exposed over a long period of time to the club’s environment. With a “high hockey IQ,” as described by Frontenacs Head Coach Jay Varady, he retains and process information well.
“He’s a guy who you have a conversation with, you talk about situations with, he absorbs that information and he applies it instantly,” Varady said. “He’s one of the sharpest players that I’ve been around.”
The team is careful to paint the 6-foot-3, 207-pound forward into a corner with exact comparables when discussing his projection. But there are other massive centermen across the Pacific Division that while they possess different skill sets, still serve as models of conditioning, professional attitude and playing the game responsibly.
“We’re so lucky here in L.A. to be able to have a model like Anze [Kopitar]. He plays the game the right way,” Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson said. “So, we’re able to use Anze and how he plays 200 feet and how he protects the puck, and this is kind of like this kid, but also the other big centermen in the league like [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Ryan] Johansen.”
There were some interesting observations of Vilardi’s game at the junior level. Several terms used were “unselfish,” “creative,” “power game” and “dominant.” Futa made sure to credit Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti and the amateur scouting staff, who “nailed” Vilardi’s skill set and projection. It’s a testament to the team’s preparation that they had so thoroughly pinpointed the attributes of NHL Central Scouting’s fourth-ranked North American skater who was never expected to fall to the club with the 11th overall selection. His back issues last summer may have kept several teams ahead of the Kings away, so given what Vilardi has shown since his return and the excitement in the organization in being able to work with an elite and burgeoning talent, their loss is Los Angeles’ gain.
“He’s that capable, and he plays with his head up all the time,” Emerson said. “He’s always got the puck on his stick, and his head’s looking around to make plays. Just his body position. Blue line in, he’s phenomenal, but that’s not the only thing. I think if you were to ask what his best part is, you might say that, but he’s got the whole game. Like, he can play on the rush. He plays 200 feet. I’ve seen him backcheck, and I’ve also seen him get mean and nasty, and that’s pretty interesting, too.”
He also won’t turn 19 until August, so there should still be room for growth once he gets on the ice with the development staff. That will likely have to wait, because the Frontenacs’ season has the potential to outlast many others. With 75 points and a 33-20-6-3 record, they’re highly unlikely to slip from the third seed to the fourth, but do have an outside chance to rise up to the Eastern Conference’s second seed. President of Hockey Operations Doug Gilmour and General Manager Darren Keily brought in players such as Cliff Pu (Buffalo), Max Jones (Anaheim) and Sean Day (New York Rangers) in advance of the deadline, so there’s the potential for Vilardi, who was a dominant force with Windsor at last year’s Memorial Cup, to play well into the spring.
Though Vilardi has been signed to an entry-level contract, he would still be eligible to sign an amateur tryout agreement to play for the Ontario Reign once his OHL season in Kingston is concluded without burning a year off his contract, should the Reign’s season outlast the Frontenacs’. He is not eligible to play for Los Angeles at the conclusion of his season because the ELC he signed begins next season, via hockey ops. Because he will be a 19-year-old player drafted out of major junior hockey, he would not be eligible to play in the AHL next year until the conclusion of his junior season. Thus, in 2018-19, he will either play in Los Angeles as a teenager or be returned to the OHL.
Once he continues his on and off-ice work with the Kings, he’ll look to acclimate himself to the pace of the NHL’s pace by strengthening his lower-body. The team believes his speed will become NHL caliber, but there will still be strength and conditioning that will need to work in concert with his instruction from the development staff.
“A lot of it will have to do with [Strength and Development Coach] Matt Price and the strength room and stuff like that – leg strengths and quickness and quick twitch and things like that, and on the development side, when we’re on the ice, once he gets pucks in the corner and out of the corner, be able to escape move, things like that,” Emerson said.
That elusiveness was praised by Varady, who also noted the inherent responsibility that is a requisite to earning NHL playing time and serves as a strong counterbalance to his naturally gifted offensive ability.
“I think it’s a great 200-foot game that he can play against anybody, any building, all the time,” Varady said. “He’s not one of those players that you’re worried about, ‘oh, he’s out against the top line.’ He plays all matchups, all situations. He plays when the goalie’s pulled, he plays on the penalty kill, D-zone draws, offensive zone draws, he’s a full-facet player.”
Nelson Emerson, on the factors behind Gabriel Vilardi’s strong start with Kingston:
I think there are probably a few things. Number one is I think he feels confident that he’s healthy. He took so much time to get back on the ice. Everyone did a great job of making sure he was ready, and I think that’s the number one thing. As soon as he went out for a game and he felt great, I think that’s the number one thing that made him feel comfortable. There are probably three parts. The second part is, I bet, the excitement of waiting so long and getting to get back into a real game. For a player, that adrenaline, that rush, that excitement for competitiveness, all that kind of comes into play. I’m sure it was all bottled up for a long time, so that would be the second thing. And the third thing, I just think he’s that capable. I mean, he’s so talented and so good and so big and strong, what he’s doing, I don’t think people are surprised. Maybe surprised that he got off to such a quick and fast start, but probably not surprised at his ability.
Emerson, on his advanced grasp of fundamentals from a developmental standpoint:
That’s fair to say, but there’ll be things we’ll need to continue to work with him on. But, you’re right. He has the puck on his stick, and his head’s up, and he’s ready to make the next play. He’s always thinking a couple steps ahead of everybody else. For us, it’s going to be a lot of fun. We didn’t get a chance to work with him last summer. We did some video, and we obviously did a lot of off-ice, so this summer, when it gets down to on-the-ice and things like that, at development camp or whatever it is, we’re going to be pretty fired up.
Emerson, on whether Vilardi will stay at center:
We love him at center. The way he makes plays, the way he gets through the middle of the ice, he makes everyone around him better, so that’s kind of where I’m sure he’ll start, and we love him there. The interesting thing about this kid is I’ve seen him a couple times, and it seems like everybody’s seen him now, whether it’s Mike Donnelly, Glen Murray, Rob’s going to see him, Mike Futa’s been in. Everybody can’t wait to go watch him play. He’s had a lot of visits. A lot of our guys are playing. Anderson-Dolan – he’s been unbelievable the second half of the year. … He’s going to hit over 90-points this weekend, probably. [Mikey] Eyssimont’s a great player there at St. Cloud, over a point per game, and [Drake] Rymsha’s having a good year.
Emerson, on the plan for Vilardi next summer:
We haven’t sat down to think about his game plan, but we have to make sure he gets through his season again healthy. We’re hoping that he has a long run in Kingston. We want him to play in more games because he missed so much, so hopefully that happens, and we’ll sit down with Matt Price. Matt Price did an exceptional job with him doing his rehab, so I know Matt’ll be heavily involved in making sure he’s healthy, and things like that.
Emerson, on what the development staff will continue to work with Vilardi on:
We’re so excited, Jonny, working with him and Anderson-Dolan. These guys, from our standpoint, from our staff, we just get revved up when we have a kid that has that much talent. He’s big, he’s strong. We’ll probably work on his pace and quickness, and just that quick energy just because the game’s so fast now, so we’ll just continue to work with him on quick decisions and playing fast – things like that. But he’s exceptional at protecting pucks. I think his loose puck battles are great, and his shot, the kid doesn’t miss the net. Those are the things that at his level he’s great at. We want to make sure he’s great at that at the NHL level, too, so there’s another level that we’ve got to make sure he’s ready for, because he’s doing it right now at the OHL.
Jay Varady, on where Vilardi has been able to excel when compared to his OHL peers:
I think there’s two areas right now that he’s excelling in. It’s down low. His down low play is excelling, and he’s been a huge boost to our power play.
Varady, on Vilardi’s skill set and his biggest strengths:
I think if you had one word to describe him, it’s elusive. He’s a big body, but he’s got really good hands, so all of a sudden the pucks’ in a position that you’d think the defender has the edge on him, and then his body shifts, the puck changes angles and he holds onto it, he cuts back and he makes space.
Varady, on the “bite” in Vilardi’s game:
He’s competitive. He’s a player who wants to win. He wants to win every game. He’s focused and he’s determined, so I would say, yeah, he’s one of those guys that has a little bite.
-Lead photo via Jeff Vinnick/NHLI