Why Todd McLellan thinks of Leon Draisaitl when talking about Gabe Vilardi

Kings center Gabriel Vilardi is congratulated by defenseman Ben Hutton.
Kings center Gabriel Vilardi, center, is congratulated by defenseman Ben Hutton after a game against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 20, 2020 at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Todd McLellan still remembers the early days of Leon Draisaitl’s career.

Back before he became a league MVP, a 100-point scorer, or even a full-time NHL player, the young forward was simply trying to stick on the Edmonton Oilers roster when McLellan became the club’s coach in 2015-16.

“There were times where we butted heads over responsibility and all the other things that young players are going through,” McLellan said Tuesday, recalling how Draisaitl even spent some time in the minor leagues during their first season together.

“And look at him now. He’s one of the top players in the world. All the little lessons he learned along the way were valuable. Even though I’m not there, it’s rewarding to see him have the type of seasons he’s had.”


Years from now, McLellan hopes he’ll be saying similar things about another young player currently under his watch. When it comes to 21-year-old Kings rookie Gabriel Vilardi, the coach understands as well as anyone that there is no shortcut on the path to NHL stardom.

“It’s like a teacher in the classroom,” McLellan said. “You just see them absorb things, they apply them, it works for them, they gain more confidence. All of a sudden they slip a little bit, miss a class or miss an assignment, you got to go and correct it. [Some of the] reward is now, but the reward even more so will be later on, when maybe we’ve retired and he’s having one hell of a career.”

The NHL already has had to postpone 34 games because of COVID-19 protocols. The season, already reduced to 56 games, should be shortened even more to 48 games.

Feb. 10, 2021

That’s been the Kings’ vision for Vilardi ever since he was drafted 11th overall in 2017.

He’s already overcome major obstacle: a back injury that delayed the start of his pro career and kept him sidelined for almost all of 2019. He returned last winter to make his NHL debut, but never felt like he had regained his full strength.

He used this offseason’s extended 10-month layoff to get his body right, rebuilding stamina and improving his skating with the help of the Kings’ strength and player development staff.

He’s had this season — his first full campaign in the NHL — circled for a long time.

“It’s a very important year,” Vilardi said during the season’s first week. “I want to be a difference-maker every night. I want to help this team win.”


Now, he’s learning how to navigate an entirely new set of trip wires, receiving never-ending reminders of how challenging the transition can be.

“It’s a hard, hard league,” McLellan said, adding: “I think it’s been going OK so far and I think he gets better each night. … There’s a lot of positives, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

In the Kings’ 4-3 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, Vilardi was in the middle of the action — for better and worse. He was on the ice for both of the Sharks’ first-period goals, yet received more ice time (18 minutes 39 seconds) than any forward not on the team’s top line.

In overtime, he was robbed by Sharks goalie Martin Jones on a point-blank chance from the slot but then saved the game with a goal-line clearance in his own crease on the next shift.

Needing to score in the shootout to keep the contest alive, he appeared to fool Jones with a forehand deke, only to watch his shot hit the tip of the goalie’s skate blade just shy of the goal line.

St. Louis Blues' Justin Faulk defends against Kings' Gabriel Vilardi.
St. Louis Blues’ Justin Faulk defends against Kings’ Gabriel Vilardi during the third period on Jan. 24 in St. Louis.
(Joe Puetz / Associated Press)

It epitomized Vilardi’s ever-evolving start to the season — flashing potential one moment, trying to overcome inexperience the next.

He has registered only 11 shots, yet has scored three goals (he has four points overall). He’s won just 47% of his faceoffs and has a minus-five rating, but is graded by some advanced analytics as one of the Kings’ better players, especially offensively. According to Evolving Hockey, he’s sixth on the team in expected goals above replacement.

McLellan has maintained a balanced evaluation of the puck-handling playmaker, complimenting Vilardi’s “vision, his ability to create” while also concentrating on improving his defensive game.

“We’re trying to work with him on those details without him losing confidence in the offense,” McLellan said. “It’s a fine line.”

Vilardi has been just as demanding of himself, saying Tuesday afternoon, “I think there’s still a lot more that I need to do.”

It wasn’t long ago that Vilardi’s future was shrouded in uncertainty, about as clear as an early-morning haze.


After his unspecified chronic back injury flared up early in the 2018-19 season, the then-19-year-old went almost a full calendar year without playing a game. Though he returned in November of last season to make 32 minor-league appearances with the Reign, then collect seven points in his first 10 NHL games with the Kings, he was still “behind the development curve physically,” said Matt Price, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach.

That’s where the long offseason created by the pandemic benefitted Vilardi. With the Kings failing to qualify for the NHL’s expanded postseason, their players were allowed to resume training at their El Segundo practice facility in early August.

Vilardi was there from the first day, working with Price and the development staff not only in the weight room but also on the ice as part of an expanded skating program focused on improving speed and acceleration.

Through the use of GPS trackers, cameras and other technological tools, players could evaluate their skating motions stride-by-stride. It helped Vilardi as much as anyone.

He had his clips uploaded to his laptop. He studied tape of such strong-skating teammates as Jeff Carter, Trevor Lewis and Trevor Moore. By the time this season’s belated training camp began, Price said Vilardi had closed the physical gaps in his development. He was ready for the rigors of a full-time NHL role.

Logan Couture scored in a shootout after teammate Evander Kane tied the game late in regulation, and the San Jose Sharks beat the L.A. Kings 4-3.

Feb. 9, 2021

“It’s a testament to how far he’s come and how much he’s learned as a player, for him to have that capacity to be curious, to want to learn, and to be able to absorb some of the things we put in front of him,” Price said. “That’s all we asked of him, was to really capitalize on the opportunity. And I think he did a hell of a job.”


It has allowed Vilardi to hone in on the mental, instinctual side of his game this season; to better understand how to make an impact within McLellan’s system; to utilize his physical strengths at the NHL level.

“We’ll go through this with numerous young players that come into the league,” McLellan said. “There’s very few … [Auston] Matthews and Connor McDavid’s that just jump in and are star players. Those guys are really unique. The rest of them need a little bit of time. They need some work. They need to be coached up.”

Or, to use McLellan’s own analogy, they need a teacher. And in Vilardi, the Kings believe they have a more-than-willing student.