After years of injury issues, Kings’ Gabe Vilardi is flourishing

It’s easy to forget, now that Kings forward Gabriel Vilardi is dominating entire shifts, controlling the puck like he’s magnetized to his racquet, that a back injury nearly ended his career before it could really begin.

The issues that spooked some NHL teams and caused him to drop from a predicted top-five pick in the 2017 draft to 11th remained ominous and cost him valuable practice time and experience. He played about 80 games over the next three seasons through 2019-20 – the equivalent of one NHL season.

“There were several months — I wouldn’t say years, but several months — that I wasn’t sure I was going to play hockey for the rest of my life,” he said, “which is pretty scary because it’s all I do would ever know, all i ever wanted to do.”

He was a big, safe center in the juniors, not a big skater, but he came to the net with great success. He was expected to play a key role in the kings rebuilding process. Instead, his ongoing back problems slowed his progress and he fell lower down the organization’s depth chart each year. He seemed on the verge of going broke.

“With all players you like to project and hope and all those things. But the number of setbacks he’s had made you wonder,” said coach Todd McLellan. “But you kept going back to the package and the skill and the talent and the brain and hands.”

With his back no longer a problem, 23-year-old Vilardi has synchronized his skills, talent, exceptional ability to read the game and uncanny touch of the ball. Now playing on the wing, he’s who the Kings were hoping for when they called him up: a superb presence and striker who brings a strong work ethic.

“To tell you, was there ever any doubt, we didn’t know. We know that every time he played [minor-league] Ontario he was a dominant player. But at the same time, it takes time,” Kings President Luc Robitaille said of Vilardi’s career in the NHL.

“I give credit to the child. His love of the game is what keeps him where he is. You really have to love what you’re doing and not give up, and that’s a big thing about him. He is passionate about the game and tries to get better every day.”

Vilardi leads the Kings with eight goals, which puts him third in the NHL behind Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid and San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson with four goals. Vilardi has three more goals than he did in 25 games last season and is missing two of his 10 career goals, scored in 54 games in 2020-21. He shares the lead in the team classification with Kevin Fiala with 13 points each.

“The boy was good in the training camp. He was good in the training camp last year too. He had good attacks,” said Robitaille. “I think he earned his time on the ice by how he played and what he showed. I’m really happy for him, I have to tell you.”

Vilardi, who was promoted to the front row with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe last Saturday, scored what was deemed the winner against Toronto when he took a pass from Kopitar and fired a shot over the keeper’s left shoulder. He also won three of four faceoffs and was an effective net presence on the Kings’ first goal by Kempe.

A keeper crouches as the Kings' Gabriel Vilardi sweeps in from the side of the net.

Kings forward Gabriel Vilardi controls the puck against Blues and goaltender Thomas Greiss in St. Louis on Monday.

(Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Vilardi followed on Monday in St. Louis by scoring the first goal in a Blues 5-1 loss, forcing a turnover in the defensive zone and hitting ice to end a passing play during a six-a-side team advantage. This goal in his 100thth NHL game, extended his scoring streak to a career-high four straight games. He set up Kopitar for the Kings’ third goal after a dazzling give-and-go to record his fifth multi-point game of the season.

His scoring streak ended Tuesday when he was eliminated in the Kings’ 5-2 loss in Dallas, but his scoring rate remains at a healthy 25.8%, with eight goals from 31 shots.

Last week Kopitar said Vilardi was “undoubtedly” the Kings’ best player, which was no exaggeration. Like others in the organization, Kopitar had seen Vilardi in training camp or occasionally in the line-up and was hoping the youngster could shake off his injury woes long enough to fulfill his immense promise.

“I remember his skill is through the roof. He has to be the best in the league when it comes to handling the puck in tight spaces. He reported it. And he very rarely loses a stick fight,” said Kopitar. “I knew his skill was always there. His hockey IQ is very exceptional. Yes, he’s only had a couple of bad years with some injuries and we always talk about confidence, which can’t have been very high.

“He came to camp with a mission and, like I said, he was our best player.”

Nobody had to tell Vilardi that the training camp was a defining moment for him. He knew he had taken plenty of chances and that the Kings had talented young forwards in store in recent drafts.

“I think I had more to prove this year,” he said. “I stay away from social media because I don’t like reading it, but I don’t know who counted me on the team this year, on the starting lineup. I’ve just worked hard this summer and I’m just taking the same mentality that I had into the season this summer and so far it’s been good. But it’s a small sample size. I want to be a good player for a long time.”

That means he has to watch his back all the time. “I don’t want to say it was a blessing in disguise because I missed three years and that’s a lot of development, a lot of hockey that I’ve missed,” he said, “but I have a better body image, I think.”

He’s finally getting the chance to be the player the Kings thought he could become. He now believes it too. “They drafted me to be a goalscorer or to produce points or to help,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do this and it’s good that I’m doing it. I have to produce. After all, that is my job.” After years of injury issues, Kings’ Gabe Vilardi is flourishing

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