It all comes down to this.
After an extensive journey through the LA Kings current prospect pool, we’ve finally arrived at the top two players in the rankings – including this year’s highly coveted No. 1 spot.
Before we get to the unveiling, though… If you’re unfamiliar with our rankings, for nearly a decade this content has become a vital source of player information, as nobody outside the Kings organization talks to more coaches, scouts, and General Managers about LA’s top prospects on a regular basis than the team at MayorsManor. Endless hours go into evaluating players in the Kings pipeline and preparing our write-ups. Additionally, the final slotting of players is influenced by hundreds of hours of game action and debating the team’s prospects with a myriad of well-respected hockey people, including our key sources inside the team’s front office.
For those playing catching up, this article is the latest in a multi-part series. For your reference, below are links back to other detailed scouting reports we’ve recently published:
Honorable Mentions – including Justin Auger, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Mikey Eyssimont, Cole Hults, Alex Lintuniemi, Kurtis MacDermid, and Michael Mersch
10. Mikey Anderson
9. Matt Luff
6. Cal Petersen
4b. Michael Amadio
4a. Jonny Brodzinksi
3. Paul LaDue
MAYOR’S MANOR 2018 MIDSEASON PROSPECT RANKINGS CONTINUED
2. KALE CLAGUE: Defenseman, Moose Jaw Warriors (2nd round pick in 2016, WHL)
Expectations are extremely high for this 19-year-old standout. To the point some inside the Kings inner circles are claiming he will likely make a push to be on the NHL roster next season. Given the team’s past development pattern, that seems like a bit of a stretch. However, it will be good for club officials to get a good long look at him alongside the pros in camp this fall.
For now, Clague remains as arguably the best defenseman in the WHL and is coming off of a stint with Team Canada at the recent World Junior Championship in Buffalo, where he served as an alternate captain and came home with a gold medal. Soon thereafter, he was traded by the Brandon Wheat Kings, his team for the past three seasons, to an already loaded Moose Jaw Warriors squad. Currently fighting for the overall top spot in the league, Moose Jaw is hopeful of going on a Memorial Cup run in a few months. They certainly paid a Kings ransom to acquire Clague, sending back five assets in return, including a pair of first round picks and a second round pick.
— Brandon Wheat Kings (@bdnwheatkings) February 20, 2018
The hefty return was quickly noted to us when one Kings executive commented on the pressure that comes from being on the other end of such a big trade. Moose Jaw put a letter on him right away, as well – which is certainly a compliment to what Clague brings to a team, and why they were willing to load up on such a deal with Brandon. He is expected to turn pro next season. However, don’t look for an immediate jump to the NHL. Mentally and physically, that is likely too much to ask of such a young defender. Give him one year of seasoning in the AHL and then look for him to be with the Kings to start their 2019-20 campaign.
Clague is a highly intelligent puck moving defenseman, who wants one of those? Everybody is the correct answer.
The team just needs to be a little patient, as it will take Clague time to fully develop. His skating and ability to make plays are already near NHL level. Conversely, his strength and defensive play will need to improve before he becomes a full-time player in the Kings lineup. As he gains strength and better learns the defense tendencies in pro hockey of a 6-foot tall defender, he will have success.
Matt Greene is absolutely going to love @KaleClague – dude loves tattoos. Has a few simple ones now. Wants to be inked up. Full sleeves, etc
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) June 30, 2017
In last year’s rankings we noted he is perhaps best described as a hybrid of Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez. He can create artificial speed by moving the puck up ice quickly. Like a quarterback in football, he’s also able to locate first and second options very quickly.
Understand that Clague’s No. 2 position here doesn’t slightly position him ahead of the player slotted No. 3. He is actually several levels ahead of Paul LaDue. Additionally, Clague adds a different dynamic to what the Kings have right now in their D-core, especially on the offensive side of things. Which is only one of several reasons why he may experience an accelerated development path. Clague’s timeline towards making team, by beating someone one for a spot, is largely up to him.
1. GABRIEL VILARDI: Center, Kingston Frontenacs (1st round pick in in 2017, OHL)
Here’s one of the challenges in putting these rankings together – some people take the lazy way out and think that just because a guy was the team’s No. 1 draft pick, he is automatically their best prospect. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Through the years, we’ve spent plenty of time trying to explain why an undrafted Martin Jones was better – and more valuable – than nearly all of the team’s drafted prospects. Same could be said for Jake Muzzin, who was signed as a free agent. Ditto for goaltender Cal Petersen more recently.
With that said now, believe it, Vilardi is not No. 1 on this list because he was selected by the Kings 11th overall last June. No, not at all. He sits atop the Prospect Rankings for one simple reason – he’s that damn good. How good? One NHL executive told us that if we canvased all 31 NHL teams, and allowed Vilardi to be added to their lists instead, he would likely be No. 1 on at least 25 different lists. In other words, he is one of the top handful of hockey players currently outside the NHL.
Like Clague has done with the rest of the pack behind him, Vilardi has put a huge space between himself and everybody else in our rankings. There was absolutely no debating who was No. 1 this year.
Also like Clague, Vilardi was traded last month. Coming off a Memorial Cup Championship last spring – where he was the best player in the tournament — with the Windsor Spitfires (who are run by former Kings forward Warren Rychel), Vilardi was dealt to his hometown team, the Kingston Frontenacs. Considering he originally moved away from his parents when he was just 14, this will be a good last stop for the 18-year-old prior to him turning pro and joining the Kings next season.
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) February 8, 2018
Rather than loading up with stats, here is the skinny needed on Vilardi: Start with the fact that if he was healthy last summer, it’s nearly universally accepted that he would be in the NHL right now. Instead, he had to spend several months recovering from a back injury.
He was in Los Angeles the entire summer, working with the team’s strength and conditioning staff, learning what it takes to mold one’s body into peak athletic shape. Being capable of extraordinary performance levels requires a level of dedication most junior hockey players aren’t accustomed to. Thus, in the long run, struggles over the past eight months should pay off down the road.
Late 2017, he really opened the eyes of management and Kings’ players when he played with the ‘auxiliary group’ (akin to the Black Aces commonly referenced around playoff time). Current NHL players even noted he has a heavy stick and great hands. While he still needs to work on his quickness, there doesn’t appear to be any worry within the Kings management ranks. He even opted to skip out on Team Canadas’s World Junior camps in order to focus on healing and rounding out his game. He wants to be a dominate player next season, which practically sums up why “special” is the word most often used by people when you ask them about Villardi.
Considering even the most elite players still have detractors, don’t become alarmed if you hear people talk about Vilardi’s deficiencies. As once scout shared with us, Vilardi’s staking is his worst attribute, and it’s fine – there are zero issues there. He will be an average NHL skater. He is a hockey player in every sense of the word. There is nothing he isn’t elite at, except skating. To expand on this just a bit, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson had skating issues prior to joining the Kings; and they’ve made huge strides over the past five years. Vilardi won’t likely get to that level. Yet, that doesn’t mean there is reason to panic. We’re not talking about a Michael Mersch-type of skating concern. Rest easy, Vilardi will be fine. In fact, he would be more similar to Anze Kopitar – in the sense LA’s No. 1 center is not a gliding, fleet footed skater; it’s more about power and strength. Vilardi is not as strong of a skater as Kopitar; yet stylistically, it’s a better comparison than Toffoli or Pearson. In the end, it was noted to us Vilardi is as good of a skater as Patrice Bergeron was when he was in junior hockey. Skating was the knock on Bergeron and he turned out just fine.
Vilardi stands 6-foot-3, and he’s not just tall, he’s lengthy. Strong on the puck down low, Vilardi plays the point on the power play, shoots the puck really well, and is adept at making plays for his linemates. He has elite offensive instincts and an NHL release. Allow him some time to properly transform his body into a pro hockey player’s body, and increasing his pace to NHL level, and will become somebody who has an impact at the highest level.
All indications are, Vilardi will be making a hard push to be on the LA roster come October 2018. And not right away, but when he hits his ceiling, the Kings will have a player of Ryan Getzlaf ilk.
For sure, both of the above players (along with Petersen) have been deemed nearly untouchable in any sort of a trade. Bank on it.
Once again, many thanks to the numerous hockey sources who contribute to this series – especially Andy Tonge, our longtime correspondent, and Cody Warner, who has been covering the Ontario Reign for us since the AHL arrived in California. Their ongoing input regarding prospects continues to be invaluable throughout this process. Do yourself a favor and give them both a follow on Twitter right now.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, click here to catch up.
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