LA Kings: Gabe Vilardi finding confidence in mentally challenging season

The 2017 first-round pick of the LA Kings has struggled to find his footing in his first full NHL season, and it appears to have affected his confidence. The Kings need him to re-gain his mojo for next season.

When the LA Kings drafted Gabe Vilardi with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, it came with some risk. Originally pegged as a surefire top-five pick, back injury concerns would cause the former Kingston Frontenac to drop to the 11th pick. Those injury concerns would turn out to be well-founded.

The Kings signed Vilardi to a three-year entry-level contract in March of 2018. There was no danger of immediately burning the first year of that deal as he was limited to just four games in the AHL for the 2018-19 season after rehabbing from the back injury plaguing him since junior hockey.

After strengthening his back during the offseason, Gabe Vilardi would begin the 2019-20 season in the American Hockey League with the Ontario Reign. He started slow but quickly adapted to the pro game, so much so that he earned a callup to the Kings in February 2020.

In his first NHL game and about ten seconds into his first shift, Vilardi beat two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Florida Panthers with a wrist shot to score his first NHL goal. He would play a total of 10 games for the Kings that season and put up a total of seven points. The future looked very bright.

Going into the 2020-21 season, Vilardi was penciled in as the Kings’ second-line center. Expectations were high given how he had finished the previous season, and the team wanted to give him every chance to establish himself behind Anze Kopitar as their second pivot.

This season, however, has not gone nearly as well as last season did for the young centerman. In 46 games played, Vilardi has put up seven goals and 11 assists with an overall plus/minus rating of -8. He has struggled mightily in the face-off dot and has found himself in coach Todd McLellan‘s doghouse on a few occasions. He has been demoted to third and fourth line duties, moved to the wing, and was even a healthy scratch on two occasions.

They say every picture tells a story, and a picture of Gabe Vilardi’s body language as of late shows a young player who is frustrated and has perhaps lost some confidence. In Wednesday night’s game against the Ducks at the Staples Center, Vilardi scored for the first time in 23 games to give the Kings a 1-0 lead in the game.

This in itself would normally elicit a response of elation, but Vilardi didn’t even crack a smile. Perhaps I’m reading a little too much into this — and I am far from a body language expert — but it is obvious that this season’s struggles have taken a toll on the youngster. To further amplify this point, during the April 29th player availability, Gabe was asked if it is harder to recover both physically and mentally in the NHL.

This was his response:

Yeah, I mean, it’s really hard mentally. Honestly, it’s tough, and especially this year. I mean, it’s tougher for everyone. Everyone’s going through different mental battles kind of thing and with this COVID and not being able to do anything, see your families and that type of stuff. So it’s defintley challenging mentally.

In the same press conference, he also told Lisa Dillman from The Athletic that he wasn’t sure if he would stay in southern California to train in the offseason or if he would go home to train. Again, perhaps too much should not be read into this, but it does signal that there is a very real possibility that he is mentally exhausted.

Quinton Byfield, who surpassed Vilardi as the number-one prospect in the LA Kings organization, was called up and made his NHL debut on April 28th — ironically the same game Vilardi scored his breakthrough goal. Even though Byfield slotted into Vilardi’s 2C spot, it appears Byfield’s callup has been a boost for Vilardi, as he has been much more assertive and overall more visible these past few games. He is now centering Lias Andersson and Trevor Moore, and this line is indeed showing chemistry and, dare I say, promise.

The bottom line is that Gabe Vilardi has way too much talent not to be a legitimate top-six NHL forward — whether it’s at center or on the wing. Perhaps a chance to recharge the batteries and a reset could be exactly what he needs to take his career to the next level. The competition will be tougher than ever in training camp next season, as the LA Kings highly touted prospects will be pushing for spots on the team. Regardless, don’t count Gabe Vilardi out just yet.

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