When Los Angeles nabbed Gabe Vilardi with the 11th pick overall in the 2017 draft, it looked like a pretty shrewd move. After all, Vilardi was a big, talented, puck-possession center and was coming off a Memorial Cup victory with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. Concerns over his skating had dropped him out of the top-10, but the future looked bright.
Unfortunately for all involved, Vilardi ended up dogged by back woes and while we've seen glimpses of his upside in the past - he rang up 58 points in just 32 games with OHL Kingston the year after he was drafted - there has been a lot of waiting.
Well, it appears as though the wait is over.
Vilardi is finally healthy and ready to make an impact on the Kings' roster, which is great timing since Los Angeles is going through a rebuild that will see a lot of turnover in the coming years. With Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev sent to AHL Ontario to begin the season (and the OHL once the junior league is allowed to start) and Alex Turcotte hurt, there are still some elite talents on the way, but Vilardi is pumped to kick off the season after putting in a lot of important work in the off-season.
"It's really big for me," he said. "This was the first time in three years that I actually got to spend the summer getting better instead of getting my body back to playing shape again."
Vilardi did get into 10 games with the Kings last year as well as 32 with the Ontario Reign, after playing just four games with Ontario the year prior. Last season's experience gave him the parameters he needed for success during this productive off-season.
"The biggest thing for me was conditioning," Vilardi said. "Last year, both in the AHL and the NHL, my shifts would kind of fall off after 15 seconds. My legs would start to feel it. My conditioning now is so much more improved and obviously that came with actually having a summer to train."
When he was with Los Angeles, Vilardi was pretty effective, notching seven points in those 10 games. On top of getting his feet wet at the NHL level, the youngster was able to prepare for the future and learn what he needed to improve on.
"Just getting that experience and seeing that there is a little bit of a speed change for sure - guys just think the game so much faster in the NHL compared to the AHL. And it was huge seeing what I needed to work on - the conditioning but also the consistency," he said. "Last year there would be games where I'd feel good and then maybe we'd have a 3-games-in-4-nights and I'm not thinking the game very well - I'm slow to react and my legs are heavy."
Back when the Kings drafted Vilardi, the succession plan looked pretty flawless: though it would obviously take the pivot some time to develop, eventually he would have the perfect mentor in captain Anze Kopitar, one of the best centers in the league and another big body, to boot.
For the past few months, Vilardi really focused his video-room time on Kopitar and he'll undoubtedly pay close attention during the Selke winner's shifts this season.
"I've watched him and Leon Draisaitl - those are the guys I want to model my game after," Vilardi said. "You watch 'Kopi' and you rarely see him in the wrong spot or making the wrong decision with the puck."
Naturally, the hope is that Vilardi can give the Kings similar excellence in the coming years and even if he never reaches the level of Kopitar, he'll have a ton of support around him in the Los Angeles forward corps. Byfield and Turcotte are both natural centers too and coach Todd McLellan made the point during training camp that it's easier to turn a center into a winger than vice-versa. As for Vilardi, the veteran bench boss is ready to see if the kid's hard work paid off.
"His past off-seasons have been spent in rehab rather than training mode and now Gabe looks like a different man physically," McLellan said. "He looks stronger. The fact he did all the work should make him feel comfortable and confident in what he can or can't do on the ice and having that confidence is a real big thing."