Armed with a wealth of confidence, a look into Gabe Vilardi’s high-flying start to the season

You can picture the game of Jeopardy.

The category reads “Words That Start With C.” The clue is a ten-letter word that helps to identify Gabe Vliardi’s start to the 2022-23 season. The word, of course, is confidence.

“I’m going to use that the C word again, confidence,” McLellan said after yesterday’s win over Toronto. “He feels good about himself, we feel good about putting him on the ice and when you feel good about yourself and you believe in yourself and everybody else does too, it’s magic sometimes. He’s done an outstanding job, I don’t know what else I can say. It’s confidence and him feeling good.”

With seven goals from his first 10 games played this season, the only player in the league at the start of the day today with more goals was forward Connor McDavid, who leads the NHL with nine in the early goings. Names like Stamkos, Svechnikov and Pastrnak are those who find themselves at the same number as Vilardi. Pretty good company for the 23-year-old forward.

It’s a pretty good rise too, when you consider his standing when it comes to the Kings just a month ago.

Entering training camp, Vilardi was not a lock to be on the opening night roster. He was certainly probable, especially with Viktor Arvidsson’s status at the time unknown, but when you placed players into potential lineup spots, Vilardi was one who was not a guarantee, especially not in a certain role. Heck, even he knew it.

“I think I had more to prove this year,” Vilardi said. “With social media, I don’t like to read it, but I don’t know who was kind of counting me on the team this year, on the starting roster. I just worked hard this summer and I’ve taken the same mentality into the season. So far it’s been good, but small sample size, I want to be a good player for a long time.”

Fast forward to the end of October and it’s nearly impossible to picture a Kings team without Vilardi not only on the roster, but playing a prominent role. Let’s take a look at a few reasons as to why……

The Production Side
The production side, Zach? The man has seven goals from ten games, no s**t the production side is there. Okay, okay, calm down.

If you look at Vilardi’s 5-on-5 ice time throughout his career, it’s almost identical from season to season. His lowest total reads 11:12 and his highest total sits at 11:58, with this season’s mark of 11:33 falling right in between. Looking first at on-ice totals, shot attempts for with Vilardi on the ice are higher than usual by around 11 percent, which is a notable increase, but it’s in the higher-quality chances that Vilardi has seen a massive uptick.

On a per/60 basis, Vilardi’s on-ice scoring chances are up by nearly 27 percent and his on-ice high-danger chances are up by more than 46 percent. If you look at individual metrics, meaning only shots attempted by Vilardi himself, the growth is nearly double that from what his output was last season. Among players with at least 100 minute in ice time, just eight players around the league have more high-danger chances than Vilardi on a per/60 basis. Using these metrics for a single game has a limited level of value but with a slightly larger sample size, now ten games into the season, Vilardi’s underlying metrics are backing up a strong start in the statistical column.

Even as other metrics regress towards the mean, mainly a shooting percentage over 27 percent at 5-on-5, if he continues to produce chances at the rate he currently is, his production should remain high. A couple of the other reasons listed below might give some insight into why.

The Opportunity Side
There’s also the concept of opportunity and Vilardi has not just seen an opportunity come his way, but he’s gone and created his own.

During training camp, the thought would be that the opportunity might come on the second line, filling in for Viktor Arvidsson who at the time was recovering from offseason back surgery, return status unknown. Arvidsson wound up progressing to the point where he was ready to play in Game 1, but it didn’t come at the expense of Vilardi. His play throughout camp cemented his place in a potential temporary spot alongside Phillip Danault and Trevor Moore, but when that spot was no longer up for grabs, Vilardi’s play necessitated other moves to find him a home on the third line. Talk about creating your own opportunity.

“There are others that we’ve tried that with and they haven’t taken advantage of it, but [Vilardi] is the one guy that has done it,” McLellan said. “I think if the players are honest, they’ll tell you that they feel it when the coach believes in them or trust them. We tried to create that right off the bat with him.”

If you look at the distribution of minutes last season, Vilardi played just 16:31 at 5-on-5 with either Anze Kopitar or Phillip Danault, the team’s top two centers. He didn’t even more to the wing at the NHL level until he was recalled again in March. His power-play time per game never cracked two minutes and it was almost exclusively spent with the second unit, which all too often last season saw the scraps of power plays, rather than the bulk.

From the beginning of this season, Vilardi has seen time with the top power-play unit and his two power-play goals have matched last season’s total, sitting just one shy of his 2020-21 account, with right around one-third of the minutes played. He’s also played full games now with both Kopitar and Danault and appears set to continue on Kopitar’s wing for at least the near future.

As Herb Brooks once said, great moments are born from great opportunity……and that’s what we’ve seen here with Gabe Vilardi.

“We talked about giving him a really good opportunity, as much as you possibly can, throughout the exhibition season to try to get him into situations where he feels good about himself and the team feels good about him,” McLellan added. “We tried that and he took advantage of it.”

The Mental Side
In speaking with players and coaches on the rise in Vilardi’s production in the early goings of the season, it became quite clear how had the young player was on himself at times in the past. His own harshest critic, it can be easy to get down on your luck when things aren’t going your way and no player was harder on himself than Vilardi.

“It’s easy to be hard on yourself when things aren’t going well, it’s easy to spiral a bit and that’s probably the biggest thing in an 82-game season, is keeping steady,” Anze Kopitar said of his new linemate. “Not going too high, not going too low and it seems like he’s figured that out. It’s great to see.”

There’s been a lot of words thrown around early in the season when it comes to Vilardi, starting with confidence but also including enthusiasm, enjoyment, smiling and refreshing. It’s clear that he’s enjoying his hockey at the moment, but that has translated off the ice as well, with teammates and coaches noticing a major difference with how he’s carrying himself.

“It’s really refreshing to see him walk into the rink, he’s sticking his chest out a little, he’s smiling more, he seems to be enjoying the whole package and that’s great,” McLellan added. “He’s earned the opportunity to feel that way and as a result he’s playing that way.”

It’s not specific to Vilardi’s case, but the organization does have individuals who can help in that area, something that McLellan spoke to yesterday.

“We have people in the organization that help all of us, including me, when we talk about pressure and what what we feel sometimes,” he said. “We [as coaches] can help him as much as we possibly can, but there are others, it’s the training staff, teammates, other people on staff that that help all of us with that.”

As we look ahead, the hope is that Vilardi can take the next step forward, which is that of a top-line winger.

Vilardi made his debut with line yesterday against Toronto and contributed with a goal, as he combined with Kopitar late in the second period for one of two goals scored by members of that line, as Adrian Kempe also buried a power-play goal.

“I think it was good and sometimes it’s good to mix the lines up and get some good chemistry going, some new energy on the line,” Kempe said. “Gabe did a great job [yesterday], he’s good on pucks and he’s good down low. He got a goal too, so that’s good for him and for us.”

In advance of their debut, Kopitar called Vilardi the team’s “best player right now, hands down”, something that made Vilardi laugh when he heard it repeated to him.

“I don’t know about that, that’s pretty cool to hear coming from him, I mean he’s the best player hands down,” Vilardi said with a smile. “If he’s saying that it’s good, it means I’ve got to keep going and help them out and just try to produce as a line.”

The results from last night were evident. The line with Kempe, Kopitar and Vilardi led all offensive units with seven scoring chances and four high-danger chances. While that’s good, and what a first line is expected to do, they also limited their opposition at the other end, trending on the positive side of 50 percent in terms of both metrics.

When discussing the line changes, McLellan used the term “out-chanced” to describe why he decided to make a change there. The line was not out-chanced against Toronto and their most common opposition was a line with John Tavares and William Nylander. A good response to a lineup adjustment and a strong start as a trio. While we’d seen glimpses of success from that unit, the top line perhaps played with too much risk in the early goings, that saw chances created and many times converted, but it came at the expense of the other end of the ice.

As the team hits the road, they’ll seek similar balance among their offensive units, with games against two reigning playoff teams in St. Louis and Dallas on the horizon. Here’s to hoping a hot start from Vilardi continues to be a part of that.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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