LOS ANGELES — When he arrived for training camp, Gabe Vilardi wasn't sure if he'd have a spot on the roster. Just over a month later, only Connor McDavid and Erik Karlsson have more goals than the former 11th overall pick.
Not bad for a guy fighting for his NHL life.
Vilardi's career has been a roller coaster and last season might have bee his low point. After a poor start and a stint with COVID, Vilardi was sent to the AHL to gain experience on the wing. He excelled in the AHL, with his skill level shining through, with 38 points in 39 games for the high-powered Ontario Reign.
He signed a one-year extension last summer, making this his make-or-break season.
He impressed in preseason and forced his way onto Quinton Byfield's line.
Of course, the Kings went through a similar cycle with Vilardi last season. The club was excited by a strong preseason, only to be disappointed during the regular season.
At right wing this season, he might have found his game in the NHL.
Vilardi has been the team's best forward, routinely taking over whole shifts and imposing himself on the opposition. His eight goals in 12 games lead the team and earned him a promotion to the top line against Toronto on Saturday. As he's done all season, he took advantage of the opportunity with a goal.
That's something Todd McLellan has noticed.
"We talked as a group about giving him a really good opportunity, as much as we possibly could, throughout the exhibition season, the beginning of the season to try and get him in situations where he feels good about himself and we and the team feel good about him. We tried that, and he took advantage of that.”
There are a lot of reasons behind Vilardi's resurgence in his third season. A big one is his improved mentality. His confidence has increased and, according to coaches and teammates, he looks to be having more fun on the ice. He has also acknowledged the mentality switch heading into the season.
"I just came with the mentality to take it day by day," he said. "I feel like I put so much pressure on myself ever since I turned pro, since that COVID season, so I'm coming in and just playing."
The coaches have also noticed this change.
“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 said. “He’s earned the opportunity to feel that way and as a result, he’s playing that way. Confidence.”
From a hockey perspective, he looks like an entirely new player, like the player he was drafted to be in 2017. A big body with excellent hands in tight spaces, Vilardi can dominate down low and along the boards. He's trusting his shot a lot more, too. He has 2.7 shots per game — much higher than his career average. The coaching staff noticed a change in the way Vilardi is playing too.
"Personally, the coaching staff thinks he's a step quicker," McLellan said. "He looks a little faster. Some of that's confidence, some of its feeling good. He feels good about himself, about his game. Teammates are excited about him, there's a lot of positive things in his world right now and we have to keep him there."
Having Vilardi take such a massive step forward is massive for the team. He feels like a new acquisition, giving the team an element they've been missing in recent seasons. He sits top five in points and goals per 60 minutes and is a massive factor in the Kings sitting 6th in the league for goals per game. A stat they finished 20th in last season.
Vilardi's 25.9 shooting percentage and 3.3 goals above expected are both unsustainable. He'll cool off at some point and when that happens, we'll learn if this is a flash in the pan or the new Vilardi. His fantastic possession metrics and overall strong analytics point to sustainable top-six play, even if his 57-goal, 90-point pace isn't. He's further proof that patience is key with prospects, an important reminder for a fan base with several developing players.