Gabe Vilardi Notebook: Pro Debut Thoughts, And Not Expected in LA Until 2019

Nobody needs to overreact. Gabe Vilardi has now played one professional hockey game.

Even so, ‘encouraging’ would be a vast understatement when describing the importance of seeing a 19-year-old forward make his AHL debut on Thursday.

Originally selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft by Los Angeles, Vilardi has been one of the most talked about Kings prospects in nearly a decade – back when Brayden Schenn was rated as the top prospect in all of hockey.

It’s been a winding road for Vilardi since being selected at the league’s annual summer party. He was traded by his OHL team, missed significant time due to injury, has had more starts and stops than a New York subway train, and yet it all appears to finally be in his rear-view mirror.

Just don’t count on seeing him in a Kings jersey in the immediate future.

From what we’ve been able to gather, the plan for Vilardi at this point is to play two more games with the Reign (tonight in Stockton and then home on Sunday). That’s the maximum allowed under this conditioning assignment. The Kings can – and will most likely – petition for two additional contests, which would be a pair of Reign road games on December 7 and 8. From there, Vilardi needs to be on the NHL roster or sent back to junior, as he is ineligible to play in the AHL this season.

Not so fast, though.

As we alluded to in a recent article, and what has since been confirmed to us by two different sources, assuming Vilardi is healthy after his five-game conditioning assignment, the plan is for him to attend Team Canada’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp. That’s scheduled to being in British Columbia on December 11, followed by some exhibition games prior to the WJC starting on December 26. If Vilardi was to make the team, that tournament concludes with the gold medal game on Saturday, January 5.

Even in early January, his future still might be up in the air because the Kings would need to decide if he’s going to the OHL or debuting with the Kings – a decision that isn’t expected to be so cut and dry. They could actually play him nine games in the NHL (without burning a year off of his Entry Level Contract) and eventually make the call to send him back to junior hockey.

Man, how times have changed. Vilardi has gone from projected as the Kings third-line right winger this season to now maybe going back to the OHL. Over the summer, we were told he wasn’t going back (which former Kings forward Warren Rychel, now GM of the Windsor Spitfires believed, as well – that’s why he traded Vilardi last season). Then, just in the last month, we’ve been told the OHL is now an option once again. Sure, the injury changed things. So has the Kings play on the ice this season and the myriad of uncertainty surrounding their current roster players. And nobody in management can accurately predict where things will sit one month from now.

Regarding Vilardi’s debut on Thursday in Bakersfield, the smile on his face post-game told the whole story. Yet, he still shared some thoughts…

Vilardi on how he felt after his first game in about six months – “Definitely a little rusty, but it feels good to just get it over. Look forward to the next one, keep getting better… I definitely felt more comfortable [as the game went on], I had more time with the puck than I realized. When you’re in the first period, you’re kind of overthinking everything. As the game goes on, you start loosening up and feel comfortable.”

Vilardi on the perpetual smile he seemed to be struggling to hold back – “It was definitely a long time coming. I’ve been working hard this whole summer, and done a lot of rehab, so it’s definitely a relief.”

And some reaction from Ontario Reign coach Mike Stothers…

Stothers on Vilardi’s debut – “His enthusiasm for the game is infectious (long pause). Oh, Gabe. He was so excited I thought we were going to take a too many men on the ice penalty.”

Stothers on keeping Vilardi’s shifts rather short in the first period – “I talked to him yesterday and I said that’s probably going to be the biggest challenge for him, to manage his minutes and make sure that he’s not overextending his shifts. I mean, he’s been off for a long time, so you can see it in practice this week; it doesn’t take long to fatigue when you’re in more of a hockey environment. He’s skated, but that’s different than being held up and trying to finish checks. I thought we tried to be a little bit careful and cognizant of that and also knowing full-well that we have another game [Friday in Stockton]. So you certainly don’t want to put undue stress on his first game back and I thought he did well.”

More from Stothers on Vilardi – “I thought, for his first game, with as long as he’s been off, he certainly shows a real hockey sense. He has an awareness of where he should be, what he should be doing, sorting things out, whether it’s a neutral zone forecheck or defensive zone coverage. I think that’s really encouraging, that there’s a good hockey mind there to go along with the talent that he has.”

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

– Stothers went on to say that he believes the second game of the back-to-back should be the real test for Vilardi.

– In his debut, Vilardi played on the third line with Zach Mitchell and Phillip Maillet. They were joined by defensemen Alex Lintuniemi and Kale Clague to form the second power play unit.

– Kings prospect Daniel Brickley took two penalties in the game, one for goaltender interference – a rather rare infraction from a player of his skill set. It was odd to see him playing down so low.

– If Vilardi was returned to the OHL, there is a good chance he’ll be traded within the junior league before he arrives. Kingston holds his rights. They’re second-to-last in the OHL and recently traded their top two players. It would be unlikely Vilardi would be part of their roster for the second half the season considering his potential trade value. When is the OHL Trade Deadline? January 10, 2019.

– Back to the WJC, getting Vilardi would be quite a boost for Team Canada – especially after losing Kings prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan.

– Other Kings prospects who will potentially be invited to Canada’s camp include forward Akil Thomas, defenseman Markus Phillips, and goaltender Matthew Villalta.

– Even more WJC news, look for at least three other Kings prospects to play for other countries, with defenseman Mikey Anderson expected to join Team USA, along with additional participation from centers Bulat Shafigullin (Russia) and Kings 2018 first round draft pick Rasmus Kupari (Finland).

– MayorsManor will be on hand in Vancouver for the 2018 WJC and we’ll have news, notes, and quotes throughout the tournament.

ALEX LINTUNIEMI

In addition to catching up with Vilardi and Stothers in Bakersfield, we also spent a few minutes chatting with Lintuniemi following the Reign 3-2 victory…

On playing so many minutes and seeming to never take a shift off – “I was trying to get a little rest in me at some points, at least (laughter). It was nice that the coaches trusted me and gave me so many minutes today. That’s always nice.”

On being paired with Kale Clauge, the Kings top defensive prospect – “That’s awesome. He’s a young kid, smaller kid, but he moves well. He’s great with the puck too, so we have good chemistry out there. I like playing with him a lot.” [note: easy to call Clague small when you stand 6-foot-3 off skates]

On Vilardi making his debut with the Reign – “He hasn’t played in a long time, but obviously we know the talent he has. I was trying to give him the puck every time I was out there with him because you never know what a skilled player like that can do.”

Photo courtesy of Owen Main / Fansmanship.com

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