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Gabriel Vilardi's Long Road to Breaking Out in the NHL

Gabriel Vilardi's struggled with injuries and season disruptions on his way to a potential breakout season for Los Angeles. Tony Ferrari looks at his roller-coaster career.
Gabriel Vilardi

It’s Feb. 20, 2020. The North American sports world had yet to shut down because of the global pandemic. The Tampa Bay Lightning were about to start a three-year run of Stanley Cup finals appearances. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid were tearing the league apart on the stat sheet. Auston Matthews, Alexander Ovechkin, and David Pastrnak were in a heated race for the NHL’s goal-scoring crown.

In what wound up being one of the better stories from that NHL season, it was also the NHL debut of Gabe Vilardi.

After years of battling debilitating back injuries, missing big chunks of time and important development opportunities such as the world juniors, Vilardi stepped onto NHL ice for the first time. He scored 10 seconds into his first shift and collected an assist later in the game.

It was years in the making for the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft. It was also another rise in a roller-coaster career, which has now turned him into one of the league's best breakout players this season with 15 points in 15 games. But before and between his two rises to NHL prominence, he's had drops.

Vilardi began dealing with the back issues almost immediately after being drafted. He initially injured himself leading up to the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires in the run-up to his draft. The following year, he would miss his first NHL training camp as the Kings announced he was dealing with back issues going back to Windsor’s championship run.

The missed training camp turned into months out of hockey as Vilardi didn’t return to action until January 2018 after being traded from Windsor to the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL. The highly touted center went on to post 22 goals and 58 points in 32 games with the Fronts, giving Kings fans hope for the future.

The following 2018-19 season, he would again be plagued by lingering back issues. Late in the summer, Kings GM Rob Blake would announce that Vilardi would be missing rookie camp yet again. It wound up being much longer.

He remained in Los Angeles, training with the club on the side and trying to get back to full health. In November, Vilardi was put on a conditioning stint to the AHL where he would make his pro debut, playing in four games in the lead-up to Team Canada world juniors camp.

Expected to be a big part of the Canadian contingent at the 2019 World Junior Championship, Vilardi was once again sidelined. Yet again, it was his back. The disappointment of another missed opportunity was a lot to deal with for the then-19-year-old.

This time, the Kings decided that the best course of action was for their young center to be shut down for the rest of the season. Vilardi's development had taken a major hit.

To start 2019-20, Vilardi remained out. It wasn’t until late November that he was inserted into the Ontario Reign’s lineup. Thankfully, when the former first-rounder stepped back onto the ice, he looked like a player well worth the wait.

Although the Reign took it easy on Vilardi with eased-in deployment, Vilardi seemed healthy and was thriving. Through 32 AHL games, he posted 25 points. That led to his first NHL call-up.

We arrive back on Feb. 20, 2020 – Vilardi’s NHL debut.

It wasn’t just that Vilardi had scored, but it was the journey that he had taken to lead up to that moment. The emotions ran high as congratulations and praise rained in from all over the hockey world.

Vilardi’s first NHL stint was an impressive one. He recorded three goals and four assists in just 10 games. The young forward had seemingly arrived and the story of perseverance and dedication was everything hockey loves.

Then the world stopped. COVID-19 had taken over in early March. Vilardi was once again on the sidelines. Although this time, there was a silver lining – it wasn’t his back.

The next two seasons would be marred in oddities such as taxi squads, game cancellations, shortened seasons, and stunted development across the world of sports. Vilardi was no exception to that.

The former OHL star had an up-and-down season in the NHL during the shortened season upon returning from the COVID-19 shutdown. He was bounced around the lineup regularly and just wasn’t at the level he was when he first made his NHL debut.

He split the 2021-22 season between the NHL and AHL, seemingly a step back. It was a difficult time for the Kings prospect as their system had become flush with talent, especially down the middle.

The additions of Alex Turcotte and Quinton Byfield meant his future down the middle was in doubt. The signing of Phillip Danault only further made his future at center questionable. His transition to the wing while in the AHL last season made his path to the NHL much easier. 

Fast forward to this year, Vilardi has quietly been one of the NHL’s best stories. With a team-leading 15 points and a recent promotion to the team’s top line, Vilardi is finally thriving the way he was expected to when he was taken 11th overall. 

The now 23-year-old is an offensive driver for the Kings, leading the team in goals with 10. Vilardi’s ability to play a power game blended with finesse and finishing ability has been a welcome sight for a Kings team in need of scoring. 

Vilardi is healthy and in a position to succeed on the wing. His skating was never a strength of his game, and while it isn’t substandard, his game profiles to the wing much more seamlessly. His strength on his feet and puck protection ability allow him to cut to the inside from the walls and attack space around the net front. 

He works off the boards intelligently, positions himself between opponents and the puck to secure possession and then finds teammates in an opportune position. His off-puck movement in the offensive zone is stealthy as if he is stalking his prey and waiting to pounce on the puck in space. 

The offensive mind and skillset of Vilardi were never in question. He’s always shown the ability to blend power and skill, strength and finesse. His OHL highlights are exciting and highlighted why he was so highly regarded. His AHL play built on that as he became a true dual-threat forward. 

Vilardi came into camp healthy, took advantage of an open position as Viktor Arvidsson recovered from off-season surgery, and ran with it. Vilardi was one of Los Angeles’ best players in camp and the pre-season. That continued into the regular season. 

Now, Vilardi helps lead the team with his underrated play as the Kings hope to take the next step toward Stanley Cup contention. Will he be the bridging piece between the emerging young talent on the Kings and the talented group of veterans driving the bus? Only time will tell. 

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