What a difference one year makes.
Last year, Gabe Vilardi was embroiled in trade rumors and looked to be on his last leg within the Los Angeles Kings organization. It felt like this season was going to be a make-or-break one for Vilardi.
And oh boy, did Vilardi Make it.
Season in Review:
Scoring 23 goals and 41 points in just 63 games — a 30-goal 53-point pace over 82 games — Vilardi finished seventh in points for the Kings. But was fifth in points per game and second in goals per game.
And his advanced metrics were fantastic. He finished third in goals above replacement and first in even-strength defense according to Evolving-Hockey.com.
Vilardi also added four points in five playoff games.
One of the things that surprised me looking back at his season is how productive Vilardi was at five-on-five. In my head, his hot start to the season involved him feasting on the man advantage, collecting most of his points on the power play. But that’s not what happened.
He finished second on the team in even-strength goals and fourth in points despite playing just 63 games. He was one of the most productive even-strength players on the roster.
Vilardi found most of his success on the third line with Blake Lizotte and one of Alex Iafallo or Kevin Fiala. He did get a look on the top line with Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar, but that line never really gelled.
Everything seemed to finally click for Vilardi this season. There was clearly a mentality change, he talked a lot about taking things day-by-day and not getting too low on himself to start the season. And that led to success in camp and a big confidence boost that carried into the season.
That mentality change helped a lot, but I also think there was some physical maturation there which also helped. Vilardi isn’t a physical player in the traditional sense.
He isn’t burying guys on the forecheck or making power moves to the net off the rush, but he does rely on physicality a lot. He likes to work in tight pockets of space, using his high-end skill to beat players one-on-one and needs the physical strength to fight through checks to make that work.
He’s always been a player that creates a lot from down low and along the boards in the cycle game, and you have to be strong to make that work in the NHL.
That combination of increased confidence and the physical ability to play his game were catalysts for a huge season from Vilardi.
It was a breakout season for Vilardi, but he still has another level to reach. Next season is set up to be a true breakout season, one that puts the entire league on notice. Similar to Kempe’s past season.
It’s possible that Vilardi moves up the lineup into a top-six spot. It’s hard to see where he fits into the top six given the current roster, but he won a spot on the third line in camp last season and can do the same next season.
Looking at the Kings’ top six in the final game of their season — Viktor Arvidsson-Anze Kopitar-Adrian Kempe, Trevor Moore-Phil Danault-Alex Iafallo — it seems realistic that Vilardi can force his way into that group.
Of course, Fiala will also be battling to move into the top six.
Even if Vilardi doesn’t force his way into a top-six spot, I would expect a huge season from him.
Assuming no one is traded, I could see Fiala move into Iafallo’s spot on the second line with Iafallo moving back onto the third line with Quinton Byfield and Vilardi. It was a small sample size, but that line was excellent to start the season.
Iafallo and Byfield are great puck hounds and cycle the puck well, two things that complement Vilardi’s game. And despite criticisms of his game and a lack of raw production, Byfield shows up well in chance creation metrics. If Byfield keeps that up and is able to consistently feed chances to Vilardi, it will lead to plenty of goals.
One of the things to look for with Vilardi next season is an ability to drive play consistently. He did it at times last season, there would be stretches where he dominated games, but it wasn’t a consistent feature of his game.
If he can begin to regularly take over shifts, he’ll quickly become one of the Kings’ most valuable players.
In his exit interview, Vilardi highlighted improved board play as an area he wants to improve on. So, that’s something to keep an eye on next season.
There’s also the possibility of Vilardi moving back to center after playing a bit there in the playoffs. But I don’t see it happening. Both Todd McLellan and Rob Blake have been adamant that Byfield will return to center soon. With Kopitar and Danault anchoring the top six and Byfield expected back up the middle, there isn’t a spot for Vilardi.
If he can stay healthy next season, a 30-goal, 60-point season seems very realistic for Vilardi. Even with third-line minutes. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him climb the depth chart even more.
A restricted free agent this summer, I wouldn’t expect a long-term extension for Vilardi this summer. Blake steered away from that possibility a bit in his exit interview, so, I’d expect a bridge deal. The Kings will want to see what an 82-game season looks like from the new and improved Vilardi and negotiate from there.
A two-year prove-it deal seems likely, but it’s also possible he gets a one-year extension to set him up for a big payday next summer when Kopitar’s contract is off the books. Similar to what the Kings did with Mikey Anderson last season.
He is on the precipice of breakout as a legitimate star in the NHL and next season could be his coming out party.