Scouting reports on Windsor Spitfires center Gabe Vilardi questioned his skating ability, and more than a few NHL teams apparently took that as gospel. Although Vilardi was the fourth-rated North American skater in Central Scouting's final draft rankings, the 17-year-old from Kingston, Canada, wasn't among the first 10 players selected Friday in Chicago.
The Kings didn't care about his perceived deficiencies. Skating can be improved. The heart and skills their scouts saw while he led Windsor to the Memorial Cup — the pinnacle of junior hockey — can't be taught.
The Kings claimed Vilardi with the 11th selection. They were choosing early for the first time since their two Stanley Cup championships pushed them back in the selection order and failed trades left them without first-round picks. The 6-foot-3, 203-pound center is scheduled to visit California for the first time next week to participate in the Kings' development camp at El Segundo.
"They've got a lot of winners on that team and I'm really looking forward to meeting some of those guys and hopefully learning from them and take some of their stuff and apply it to my own game," said Vilardi, who said he admires the smarts and strength on the puck of Kings center Anze Kopitar, the team's No. 11 draft pick in 2005. "I'm really looking forward to it. L.A.'s a great organization and I'm happy to be joining it."
It's a cliché for team executives to express surprise that such-and-such a player was available when their turn came up, but the Kings had reason to be delighted the first round didn't go according to Central Scouting's form and Vilardi was available.
The rankings went askew immediately, when Swiss-born center Nico Hischier, ranked No. 2, was chosen No. 1 by the New Jersey Devils, leaving top-ranked center Nolan Patrick to be chosen second by the Philadelphia Flyers. That continued when defenseman Miro Heiskanen, ranked fourth among European skaters, was chosen No. 3 by Dallas. The first American-born player drafted was Casey Mittelstadt of Edina (Minn.) High School, chosen eighth by the Buffalo Sabres.
"It feels unbelievable. I was a long time speechless and I can't believe it," said Hischier, who scored 38 goals and 86 points in 57 games with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on the way to becoming the first Swiss player chosen first in the NHL draft.
The longer Vilardi's name stayed on the board the happier the Kings were. He had 29 goals and 61 points in 49 regular-season games but impressed them with his seven assists in Windsor's four-game victory over Erie in the Memorial Cup final. Windsor's general manager is former Kings forward Warren Rychel.
"We found that on the biggest stage, he took it to another level," Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa said of Vilardi. "We were looking to upgrade our skill, and it's a package of a big kid with just incredible skill set and he's a winner. Our guys have him as an average-plus skater. It's not a kid that's a blazer, but this is a kid that has never had any problem getting around the ice at any level he's been at …. He's a champion."
The Ducks didn't have a first-round pick but did well Friday, anyway, because they agreed on a three-year, $9.45-million contract with winger Patrick Eaves. The Ducks acquired him from Dallas for a conditional draft pick, which became a first-rounder when they advanced to the Western Conference final, and he was a key contributor with 11 goals in 20 regular season games. He added two goals in seven playoff games before he suffered a high ankle sprain and bone bruise in the second round against Edmonton.
Eaves could have tested the free-agent market but he said he "wanted to be a part of everything that they're doing" in Anaheim. His contract includes a no-move clause in each season. "Being in that locker room is something special. I noticed that on Day One," said Eaves, who considered the day doubly special because it was his parents' 38th anniversary. "I've played with great players, great people …There was something different."
Vilardi has arranged to work with a skating coach and a trainer this summer in Minnesota in order to bring his physique and his game to the NHL level. Vilardi, who will turn 18 in August, said his goal is to make the Kings' roster in September. "I know I have a big summer ahead of me and I'm going to work real hard and work hard at training camp," he said.
That's a start. "We're looking for a bunch of different opportunities to add offensive skill," Futa said, "and clearly we feel we've made a huge step in that direction today."
The draft will conclude on Saturday with Rounds 2 through 7.