LOS ANGELES — Gabe Vilardi has come crashing back down to earth. After a red-hot star that saw him post 10 goals and 15 points in his first 15 games. He's grabbed five points in his last 18 games, with just three goals.
This regression shouldn't be too surprising and felt almost inevitable. He was never going to keep up the 50+ goal pace he started the year with and wasn't going to be a point-per-game player.
Making this period, where production has dipped, crucial for Vilardi. In the past, we've seen flashes of talent from Vilardi but when the production dried up, Vilardi struggled to impact the game in other areas.
As Todd McLellan puts it, his "B" game wasn't good enough in seasons prior. Now, that has changed and even without elite-level production, Vilardi is an influential member of the team.
McLellan was asked after the San Jose Sharks game if Vilardi is providing enough in his B game.
"I think he is," said McLellan. "For Gabe, he's likely jumping on the plane or going to bed tonight and thinking about the 13 goals he had in, I don't know how many games it was. I think somebody mentioned he was on pace for 55 and we naturally, quickly, squashed that because of this type of run. He's getting opportunities, no different than Kempe was. Getting opportunities. I think it will go for him eventually. But in the meantime, when this happened to him in the past, there wasn't much else there. Right now, he's got a physical part of his game, he's running a power-play unit that's dangerous, he's doing some pretty good board work and he's pretty good defensively. So, you have three or four other things going for him where that wasn't happening in the past."
And to McLellan's point, the numbers still look good for Vilardi. Even without the production to match. According to NaturalStatTrick.com Vilardi's scoring chances per game haven't gone down much compared to earlier in the season. And the Kings routinely have more chances for, than against with Vilardi on the ice. And while this number is likely inflated by his hot start, the Kings still hold a 60% goal share with Vilardi on the ice. Meaning, 60% of all goals scored with Vilardi on the ice have been Kings' goals.
His improved defense has been noticeable as well. He holds the highest even-strength defense goals above replacement on the team according to EvolvingHockey.com. While all other analytics point toward him being a good defensive player this season. Like the Kings holding the majority of scoring chances and actual goals with Vilardi on the ice.
The physicality and board battles McLellan mentioned are evident if you watch Vilardi. It's hard to find reliable stats for these aspects of his game. But it's clear he's finishing more checks, particularly in recent games, and is winning a significant number of board battles.
I recently talked to Vilardi about his B game and what that means to him.
"Just making sure I'm playing good defensively," said Vilardi. "I think that's the most important thing, winning my puck battles on the boards there. Obviously, I'm not producing the way I was and the way I want to be. But I just have to keep sticking with it and keep getting more shots, I think that's the biggest thing for me right now."
"I think a bit of both, progression playing at wing for a longer period of time," Vilardi said of his defensive game. " I really worked on my board work during the summer and video helped during the summer. And yeah, the B game just knowing that if you're not producing you can still help the team. And obviously, the most important aspect for this team and our system is defense and checking. It's what Todd emphasizes a lot so make sure you're solid defensively."
The chances are still coming for Vilardi, but that doesn't make it easier when you aren't scoring.
"Not really, it still sucks," said Vilardi. "I'm a goalscorer, I'm a guy that likes to think I can put up points in this league and it's good when you're getting looks and chances but you have to convert those eventually."
The early season success does give Vilardi confidence he can re-capture that production.
"Yeah, I think throughout my career I've had games that I've played well and showed that I can dominate at this level. And at the start (of the season) it was good that I had a month of really good play and producing well and I just have to simplify maybe. I think when things aren't going well, I try and do too much or pass on an open shot instead of taking it. So that's something I've got to do, shoot more."
Vilardi's assessment that he needs to shoot more is also backed up by the stats. He's taking far fewer shots per game than he did at the beginning of the year and that's having a noticeable impact on his production.
Still, the addition of an effective B game is arguably the biggest development in his game. There's never been any question about his skill level and I don't think anyone is that surprised to see him produce offense in flashes. However, it's in the times that he wasn't producing that Vilardi's game failed. Now, he can be an effective player in all situations and always help the team.
The next evolution to his game will be consistently providing offense. Not going through the long stretches with no production, or at least making those stretches less frequent.