Although the Los Angeles Kings have gone through significant upheaval in their management ranks over the past few months, the 2017 NHL Draft was largely business as usual. While GM Rob Blake was present at the draft table, the event was largely run by Mark Yannetti, Director of Amateur Scouting – just as it has been in recent years. Even so, there was a different feeling to the two-day event and the meetings that took place in the weeks prior.
“Big difference, just in terms of their demeanor,” Yannetti began, when asked about running the draft under Blake instead of Dean Lombardi. “Dean is abstract and progressively thinking… it’s almost a stream of consciousness sometimes and Rob is very patience and measured. They’re both extremely intelligent and they get to similar places with different routes. So in terms of that, they’re different. … People who know me know that I can embody some of those same scattered things that Dean had, so Rob is a very complimentary presence at the draft table. … Everybody on the scouting staff, even though our philosophy is the same, we have slightly different views. I don’t know if there’s a huge philosophical shift with Rob. … It was very good compliment, he values a lot of the same things Mike Futa and I value.”
With their only pick in the first round, Los Angeles selected 17-year-old forward Gabriel Vilardi from the Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires. They tried to move up to get him, as he had been ranked as high as third on some pre-draft rankings. Despite their best efforts to trade up, he still somehow fell to them at No. 11.
“The perception is that he dropped because of his skating,” noted Yannetti. “Maybe I’m seeing something that people aren’t seeing. Does his skating need to improve? Yes. Is it a limitation? I don’t see it as a limitation. There is a level of skating that would be worrisome to me, I’ve never seen it with him. Aesthetically, he’s not a pretty skater. Sometimes first reactions are very powerful and hard to overcome. When you first see him skate, it’s not a graceful thing to look at, if I’m being politically correct. That being said, we’re not judging anyone on aesthetics here. His speed allows him to keep up with the faster players in that league. The two fastest junior hockey games I saw last year were the two Memorial Cup games where Windsor played Erie. And he was the best player in each one of those games. I view his skating as not an issue. Similar to the way we viewed Tyler Toffoli’s skating [when he was drafted]. They’re different players and their skating is different, but the reason Toffoli went so late is because of his skating. We knew it needed improving, but it was not a concern for us.
Vilardi led his OHL club in goals (29) and points (61) during the regular season. Windsor’s Warren Rychel selected him second overall in the OHL Draft and absolutely raved about him to MayorsManor on Saturday, praising his work ethic and somebody he sees as capable of playing wing or center in the NHL.
Just caught up w/ Warren Rychel re: Gabe Vilardi – "Hockey rat, never comes off the ice, strongest CHL player from offensive circles down"
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) June 24, 2017
“Anything can happen. You should never limit ambition or optimism, remarked Yannetti, when asked if Vilardi had a chance to make the Kings NHL roster out of training camp. “People love analytics in hockey; and looking at analytics, most players don’t play when they’re 18. Something like 95% of them don’t play at 18. As much as I don’t like to put limitations on optimism and what they try, certainly the expectations are that it will take some time for him to develop. That being said, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s mature. He’s not mature physically, but he can get there. I don’t want to create expectations. Ask me this after he has spent a full summer with our development coaches and I can give you a more pointed answer and less evasive one. … He’s 6-foot-3, he can handle the puck at length and in tight. He is able to create depth and keep players on the outside remarkably well. It’s an intangible trait as much as it is a teachable trait. His skill level is that of a small guy. He has the depth and range, but he is also able to make plays from in tight. His versatility in his skill set is huge. His playmaking is adequate if not better than his individual game. From the center position he can distribute the puck and distribute it directly for offense as well as to maintain possession and offensive flow up the ice. His shot is really good, secondary to his playmaking but is by no means riding in the backseat. Are we fortunate that he fell to us? I think so.”
In the second round, Yannetti and company selected another 17-year-old forward, Jaret Anderson-Dolan from the WHL Spokane Chiefs. He is said to bring high-end speed and a versatile two-way game. Likely projected as a third line guy in the NHL, Anderson-Dolan could possibly develop into a second line player if he reaches his full potential. Last season, he ranked first in power play goals among Chiefs forwards (14), as well as second in goals, points and game-winning goals (6). He also captained Canada’s U18 World Junior team in 2017.
One other interesting tidbit – his head coach in Spokane was Don Nachbaur, the same guy just hired by the Kings to be an Assistant Coach under John Stevens next season.
“I should tell you, we couldn’t get [Nachbaur] to shut up about Anderson-Dolan.” Yannetti said with a big laugh. “There was no additional information gleaned from him because he had told it all. Brent McEwen and I had numerous talks with him. I don’t want to speak for other people but there is a body language change and voice inflection change whenever [Nachbaur] talks about Anderson-Dolan. He believes in the kid, as well as the player, on a level that becomes sickening maybe if you spend too much time talking to him. It certainly doesn’t hurt when he is now on our staff and we continue those discussions on deeper levels. Brent did most of the heavy lifting but Anderson-Dolan was not a secret. I think he was as high as 21 on some lists and as low as 31 on some. We’re not talking about a guy who was unknown to the staff. The funny thing is everyone on the staff saw him because we held one of our meetings in Spokane this year. That was a matter of circumstance instead of planning but it helps when everyone on the staff had the same view of him. He was comprehensively scouted and you can say we had inside information because of our relationship with the coach. That’s kind of how the pick came to fruition.”
After acknowledging the Kings needed to add some goaltending depth during a MayorsManor interview last week, Yannetti used the Kings third pick (72nd overall) to select Matt Villalta from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. After being invited to attend the team’s OHL camp as an invitee, all he did was post a 25-3-0 record, along with a .918 save percentage, and 2.41 goals-against average in 33 regular-season games (tops among rookies in all three categories).
“I don’t believe in drafting for need because need changes,” Yannetti again reiterated. “By the time these kids are ready to play, sometimes those needs are changed and different. But when it comes to goaltenders, you always need goaltenders. Instead of looking at an organizational depth need, goaltender is probably the most important position in the NHL. We had targeted three goalies, one of which we really didn’t have a chance to get. Of the two others, Matt was one of those two. Third round was the right spot for him too, and he was the next guy on our list, so it worked out perfectly. We were fortunate in that respect. We were able to fill some of that hole, but also this is a kid who at one point this year was 22-1 in a league (OHL) that has shown that players who graduate from it do well [in the NHL].”
With a pair of picks in the fourth round, Los Angeles went out to the blueline and selected 5-foot-11 defenseman Michael Anderson and 6-foot Markus Phillips.
Last season, Anderson recorded 34 points (5G, 29A) and a plus-29 rating in 54 games with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks. He has committed to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth, beginning with the 2018-2019 season. In Phillips, the Kings added a 202-pound defenseman who recorded 43 points (13G, 30A) and a plus-41 rating in 66 games with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.
“There are certain things that jump out to us in that fourth and fifth round and the later rounds. There are certain attributes and skill sets that fly under the radar,” Yannetti said. “Looking back, you wouldn’t think that Kevin Gravel, Colin Miller or Paul LaDue were our later picks watching them play now. [Anderson] is kind of one of those guys that’s under the radar. It’s really easy to scout the Gabe Vilardi’s of the world. You make your money finding a [Nikita] Kucherov or some of those guys we’ve found later in the draft, he kind of mimics that. Under the radar, late developing, late blooming kid who is just now coming into his own. He does have a little bit longer development path, similar maybe to [Nic] Dowd. So the fact that he is going to college is probably a plus.”
Round five saw the Kings holding another pair of picks. Defenseman Cole Hults heard his name called 134th overall. He racked up 122 penalty minutes in 59 games with the USHL’s Madison Capitols last season, and is headed to Penn State University this fall. Soon thereafter, forward Drake Rymsha was selected by Los Angeles. His father Andy was a draft pick of the St. Louis Blues back in 1987. Far more interesting is the fact Drake has played for three OHL teams over the past two seasons – the London Knights, Ottawa 67’s, and Sarnia Sting (as pictured above).
“Rymsha is a kid who burns to play hockey and has higher-end speed,” explained Yannetti. “Those later round picks need a special intangible to play in the NHL. His compete is probably only second to his speed. Then throw in that at a point this year, when he got traded to Sarnia, he had 28 goals in 21 games. While you don’t expect that, it certainly not a bad attribute to have. We see some of the later round picks that stand out and that stands out. His worst-case scenario is his offense doesn’t manifest the way it did in a short period of time. He is a wide-bodied heavy kid with compete and skating. That’s a later round pick where I think he’s safe and hope that the offense that showed up in a small time frame becomes a consistent part of his game.”
Scouting him was a bit of a challenge, though, admitted Yannetti.
“Obviously with him playing on three teams in a short period of time and the circumstances of the teams he was on it certainly conspires against the kid,” Yannetti told MayorsManor. “You know he went through the draft last year there’s a reason why – (A) he obviously didn’t play well enough to get drafted and (B) his situation and circumstance conspired against him in a crucial year where you’re trying to develop, you’re trying to navigate life you’re least prepared to deal with adversity at the age you’re having to deal with the most. It certainly didn’t help him last year. Although it helped him become the player he was this year because he got through the adversity and once he dealt with it, while it effected his initial draft year negatively, it certainly didn’t effect this year negatively and once he finally fought through that adversity and got on a team where he felt like he was home where now he was kind of in that trusted place he exploded. It certainly doesn’t help playing for just a disjointed season, but even before he found his home in Sarnia, he was still on pace to get 30 goals.
“He was on our radar before Sarnia. When you meet the kid, and we met with him at length, there’s a drive and a passion that come through. I actually tried to trap him a couple times [during our interviews], because going from team to team to team, it would be very easy to be negative. It would be very easy to blame other people. I was certainly hoping I could trap him into blaming other people or get him to alleviate things, and he never bit once; he never bit because he was honest. His accountability and his ability to self-critique, I don’t think he had it the first year. I certainly think he had it this year. I think going forward when you look at a later pick, the fact that he’s able to get through adversity, if you’re a later pick you’re going to have to fight through a lot of things to get there. That three team thing, going from team to team to team and all that adversity he faced, may actually be the best thing to happen to him.”
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