Gabriel Vilardi. “He’s earned the opportunity. It’s not a charitable recall.”

Joshua Lavallee/Icon Sportswire

As reported yesterday and officially announced by the club this morning, Gabriel Vilardi will make his NHL debut with the LA Kings against the Florida Panthers tonight, where he’s expected to start out on a line with Adrian Kempe and Martin Frk. (More HERE from Director of Player Personnel Nelson Emerson from earlier today.)

While Emerson has been keyed in on Vilardi’s development ever since the 11th pick of the 2017 draft, Los Angeles Head Coach Todd McLellan hadn’t seen him live and in person until a visit to Ontario during the bye week. He kept close tabs – “lots of video, lots of reference points from the coaches next door,” he said – but because Vilardi hadn’t taken part in training camp in each of the last two seasons, there’s not as easily accessible of a frame of reference.

That goes for his teammates, though as Drew Doughty shared on FOX Sports (or, “will share,” depending on the time you read this), his new teammates are excited to see what he can provide for this club and are proud of the work he put in while recovering from a very serious back injury.

Todd McLellan, on Gabriel Vilardi earning the opportunity to be recalled:
He’s earned the opportunity. It’s not a charitable recall. He’s certainly been one of the better players in Ontario and he’s earned the right to come to the NHL and play. Now, that being said he’s also had a different path. Quite often as a first rounder, you’re given every opportunity. He had to go work for his because of injury. There were some days where he and others wondered if he’d play again, and it’s a big night for him and his family, and we’re excited about seeing him on the ice tonight and moving forward.

McLellan, on whether Vilardi and Martin Frk will play together, and whether Vilardi will see PP time:
Yes and yes – to start with. But that can really be fluid throughout the night. They’ve played well together at the minor league level, but this is the National Hockey League and this is a different environment. Kempe will play with them and give them a little bit of pace, which I think will be important, but as I told Gabe and Schaller: Just go play right now. Just play. Feel free, play. If you make mistakes we’ll help you with them, but don’t get caught up in overthinking situations and erring because you’re trying to overdo it rather than underdo it.

McLellan, on how much he had known of Vilardi while interviewing for the Los Angeles job:

I knew of him at the draft. I knew that he had some injury problems prior to taking the job here. I knew a lot more after, obviously, the circumstances and the rehab that he went through that have been a part of the process of obviously getting him to play here again, but to say I have a deep relationship with him or understand him yet would be wrong. Even his arrival in Ontario, he missed training camp and I didn’t get to know him as a person or an individual. HE could’ve walked by me in the parking lot the first day he got here, I wouldn’t have known who he was. So, it’ll take some time to create that, but we’ll work hard at that over this next little bit.

McLellan, on whether he’s had any “big picture meetings” with the team after recent trades:
Again, we’ve been traveling, too. Some of our days have been days off. We didn’t bring the team in yesterday. The travel from Winnipeg home and the rest was important, so this was our first gathering with the group that we have. We quickly go through structure stuff with Schaller and Gabe – Gabe has been playing it. We adjust the power play, we’ve lost a couple guys that would be on there, the penalty kill and quick tutorials. Perhaps tomorrow – we’ll see how the game goes tonight – but we may have some type of structural review on t he ice where we walk players through their responsibilities. It’ll be a good reminder for the ones that have been here, and also a good introduction to how we want to do things. So, learning on the fly is what some of these guys have to go through tonight, so we’ll have to find a way to be patient and push.

Gabriel Vilardi, on the excitement of making his NHL debut:
I’m pretty excited, it’s a dream come true, obviously. I’m ready to go and pretty nervous but I’ll settle down once I get on the ice.

Vilardi, on whether his family is attending tonight’s game:
My parents and my brother. … They’ve done so much for me. I’ve put in the work but they’ve put in the work as well to help me. It means as much to me as it does to them, probably.

Vilardi, on how his game has evolved from his first game in Ontario to his call-up:
I’ve been pretty much now with the Reign and we’ve been doing well lately. We’ve won 11 of the last 12, so we’ve been doing really well. It’s been good, getting ice time. Playing well and trying to get better every day.

Vilardi, on adapting to the pace, size and age of pro hockey:
It was my first time playing hockey in a year, a year and a half, so it was definitely was a challenge to get back to pace, but after a couple weeks there I was ready to go and I’m sure tonight will be a different pace as well. I’ll have to adapt to that – whether that takes me a couple shifts, who knows. I don’t know. We’ll see how I adapt.

Vilardi, on those most responsible for him getting to this point:
There’s been a lot of people responsible for getting me back. Obviously, there are no secrets with my back injury and getting back to playing hockey again. So, there are trainers, there are family, there are friends. I’m not going to be thinking about them when I’m skating on the ice.

Vilardi, on how long it took him to get up to pace in the AHL:
Definitely it took like three or four games. That was the adapting, and it’s still a weekly process of how your legs are feeling. It was the first time playing back-to-backs, and that was tough on the second night. I couldn’t give you an exact time, but a couple games in and then you get the pace down.

Vilardi, on how he assessed his play and measured himself against competition when rising a level:
Probably just pace and how fast you have to make decisions, how much time you have with the puck. I’m sure tonight, I don’t know if ‘surprised is the word, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have as much time with the puck, whereas when I’m in the AHL and I’m looking up and I have that split second, I can make a good play. Maybe tonight I have to be chip-chop kind of thing. We’ll see, I don’t know. I have to play first, it’s my first game.

Vilardi, on what aspect of his game he’s happiest with:
I felt recently I’ve been playing really well defensively, honestly. The past couple weeks. There was a long stretch there where I think I was a minus-10. I know that stuff doesn’t really mean much, honestly, but still I was bad in my own zone, you could say. And then I cleaned that up. Stutts is pretty good. I like Stutts, he’s straightforward. If he thinks you’re playing bad, he’ll let you know. He’s a good coach, I like him a lot, honestly. He’s helped me in his defensive game, I think.

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