Column: A bad back nearly cost the Kings’ Gabe Vilardi his career. Now he’s thriving
It’s easy to forget, now that Kings forward Gabriel Vilardi is dominating entire shifts and controlling the puck as if it were magnetized to his stick, that a bad back nearly ended his career before it could truly begin.
The problems that scared some NHL teams and led him to drop from a projected top-five pick in the 2017 draft to No. 11 lingered ominously, costing him precious training time and experience. He played about 80 games — the equivalent of one NHL season — over the next three seasons, through 2019-20.
“There were several months — I wouldn’t say years, but several months — where I wasn’t sure if I was going to be playing hockey for my life,” he said, “which is pretty scary because it’s all I’d ever known, all I ever wanted to do.”
A big, sure-handed center in juniors, he wasn’t a great skater, but he got to the net with great success. He was expected to be a key piece of the Kings’ rebuilding process. Instead, his continued back woes stalled his progress and he fell deeper on the organization’s depth chart each year. He seemed on the verge of becoming a bust.
“With all players, you like to project and hope and all that type of stuff. But the number of setbacks he had, you wondered,” coach Todd McLellan said. “But yet, you kept going back to the package and the skill and the talent and the brain and the hands.”
With his back no longer an issue, Vilardi, 23, has synchronized his skill, talent, exceptional ability to read the game and uncanny shooting touch. Now playing on the wing, he has been who the Kings had hoped he’d be when they drafted him: a commanding presence and impact player who brings a strong work ethic.
Manon Rheaume, who played goalie in an exhibition for the Tampa Bay Lightning 30 years ago, is now a member of the Kings’ player development department.
“To tell you was there ever any doubt, we didn’t know. We do know that every time he played at [minor league] Ontario he was a dominant player. But at the same time, it takes time,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said of Vilardi’s NHL trajectory.
“I give the kid credit. His love for the game is the reason he’s where he’s at. You’ve got to really love what you do and not give up, and that’s one big thing about him. He’s got a passion for the game and trying to get better every day.”
Vilardi leads the Kings with nine goals, putting him in a tie for fourth in the NHL. Vilardi, who scored the winning goal for the Kings on Saturday against the Florida Panthers, has four more goals than he did in 25 games last season, and he’s one short of the career-high 10 he scored in 54 games in 2020-21. He shares the team scoring lead with Kevin Fiala at 14 points.
“The kid was good at training camp. He was good last year at training camp too. He’s had good spurts,” Robitaille said. “I think he’s earned his ice time by the way he’s played and what he’s shown. I’m really happy for him, I’ve got to tell you.”
Promoted to the first line with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe last Saturday, Vilardi scored what held up as the game-winner against Toronto when he took a pass from Kopitar and flicked a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder. He also won three of four faceoffs and was an effective net-front presence on the Kings’ first goal, by Kempe.
Vilardi followed that on Monday at St. Louis by scoring the first goal in a 5-1 rout of the Blues, forcing a turnover in the defensive zone and dashing up ice to finish off a passing play during a six-on-five man advantage. That goal, in his 100th NHL game, extended his goal streak to a career-best four consecutive games. He set up Kopitar for the Kings’ third goal, off a dazzling give-and-go, to record his fifth multi-point game this season.
His scoring streak ended Tuesday when he was shut out in the Kings’ 5-2 loss at Dallas, but his shooting percentage remains a healthy 26.5%, with nine goals on 37 shots.
Last week, Kopitar said Vilardi had been the Kings’ best player “hands down,” which was no exaggeration. Like others in the organization, Kopitar had seen Vilardi in training camp or during occasional stretches in the lineup and hoped the kid could shake off his injury woes long enough to fulfill his immense promise.
“I remember his skill is through the roof. He’s got to be top in the league in handling the puck in tight spaces. He’s displayed it. And he very rarely loses a stick battle,” Kopitar said. “I knew his skill was always there. His hockey IQ is very exceptional. Yeah, he’s just had a couple bad years with some injuries and we always talk about confidence, which couldn’t have been very high.
“He’s come to camp with a mission and, like I said, he’s been our best player.”
No one had to tell Vilardi that training camp was a make-or-break moment for him. He knew he had used up a lot of chances and that the Kings had stockpiled talented young forwards in recent drafts.
For the first time in years, the Kings are out of their rebuild stage as they look to chisel a clear path to becoming Stanley Cup contenders.
“I think I had more to prove this year,” he said. “I stay off social media because I don’t like to read it, but I don’t know who was counting me on the team this year, on the starting roster. I just worked hard this summer and I’m just taking the same mentality that I had this summer into the season, 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 must take constant care of his back. “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 missed,” he said, “but I do have a better sense of my body, I think.”
Finally, he’s getting a chance to be the player the Kings believed he could become. He believes it now too. “They drafted me to be a goal scorer or produce or help put up points,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and it’s good I’m kind of doing it. I’ve got to produce. That’s my job, at the end of the day.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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