LA Kings: Gabe Vilardi Thrives Learning from Kopitar

LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports) /

Gabe Vilardi is in his first full season with the LA Kings in 2021, and he’s already modeling his game after Anze Kopitar

It has certainly been an exciting season for the LA Kings thus far. They may not have been favored to make the playoffs this season but that isn’t stopping the silver-and-black from putting their best foot — or skate — forward.

Regardless if they make this year’s playoffs or not, the LA Kings have plenty to feel excited about when it comes to their future, and that includes Gabe Vilardi.

Kirill Kaprizov is making a solid case for himself to win this year’s Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, don’t be so quick to dismiss other candidates. Gabe Vilardi should be, and is, considered to be a front-runner for the Calder.

Along with his six goals and six assists in 25 games, the LA Kings’ first-round pick from 2017 is quickly establishing himself as a leader, even with his rookie status. Similar to how fellow rookie Mikey Anderson is absorbing the teachings, if you will, of veteran Drew Doughty, Vilardi is taking it all in as the unofficial protege of Anze Kopitar.

Before Wednesday’s game in Anaheim, Vilardi spoke with the media about his relationship with Kopitar and how beneficial his development has been thanks to the veteran’s sound leadership.

“I think it’s the little things you’d say,” the 21-year-old said of learning from Kopitar’s game. “I mean just slowing the game down, it’s crazy how he gets the puck and he’s able to slow the game down in the corners. He protects the puck so well uses his body to create separation. He’s always got his head up on to the next play. It’s really cool, really cool to watch, honestly, for me.”

While he is certainly thriving for — and determined to — develop into the player that his mentor has become, Vilardi has been enjoying being a student of Kopitar’s, so to speak, to the fullest.

“Being a guy that’s trying to get to his level, hopefully, one day and also as a fan of the game, it’s really cool to see,” beamed Vilardi. “He’s been one of the best centers in the league for 10, 12, 15 years now, however long it’s been in the league, and it’s pretty crazy.”

Something that has always separated Anze Kopitar from the rest was his high level of consistency. This has, unfortunately, been an issue for the LA Kings this season. As a result, Vilardi has been especially observant of this area in Kopitar’s game and hopes to capitalize on it sooner rather than later. Of course, while consistency is an area that warrants some personal focus for some, it comes with experience for others. Vilardi, for one, doesn’t stress one over the other.

“It’s a little bit of both,” the former Kingston Frontenac said. “[Kopitar is] top-notch every night and obviously, I want to get to that level. I mean, it’s nice to be at your best every night, but it’s nice that you don’t feel your best and how you can make an impact on games. That’s not always scoring or putting up points, but it could be just in your D zone or whatever it is, faceoffs or making smart plays and your own zone.”

His name hasn’t been on the scoresheet too often in recent games but that is, frankly, a non-issue for Gabe Vilardi. Despite acknowledging that consistency is a needed area of improvement, the young centerman has made such positive contributions to the LA Kings’ success that few seem to notice when his name doesn’t regularly appear on the scoresheet. After all, Vilardi is prone to creating some highlight-reel plays — case in point, Adrian Kempe‘s OT winner vs. St. Louis last week — and is not the least bit reluctant to use his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame to his advantage.

The aforementioned Kaprizov may be the favorite to win this year’s Calder, but don’t count Gabe Vilardi out of that race. But hey, even if the 21-year-old doesn’t win the Calder, the LA Kings have proven how inconsequential individual awards. They are deserved and celebrated when LA Kings players do win them but it is, nor has it ever been, a case of life and death.

Some can suggest that Anze Kopitar, with his diminished skill and hefty contract, make him more of a liability than an asset. Many, however, will vehemently disagree, including Gabe Vilardi.

We have seen why already but give it some time and we will see just how much more Gabe Vilardi will prove just how worthwhile Anze Kopitar’s veteran presence really was.