However, if the Kings want to truly compete for a playoff spot this year, forwards like Blake Lizotte and Jaret Anderson-Dolan (even though he had some bright moments this year) should not be in consideration for the top 6. They both lack the skill, size, and potential of a Vilardi or Byfield. Down the middle, the Kings will have Captain Anze Kopitar again in his usual position as the top-line centerman, and then the second and third line spots should be left to Vilardi and Byfield.
Now, it is no secret that Gabe Vilardi had his fair share of struggles throughout the season. Sometimes he had flashes of brilliance in his play, yet he could also embrace mediocrity on any given night. The difference, though, between Vilardi being a game-changer or a mid-level centerman seems to lie in one man…Quinton Byfield.
Byfield, in his short time with the Kings, never looked out of place. He even saw playing time as the team’s second-line centerman, essentially bumping Vilardi down to the third line. Byfield’s presence on the ice, however, may actually be the motivation Vilardi needs to become a viable candidate for the team’s second-line position.
During Byfield’s six-game stint with the Kings, as well as the games that followed, Vilardi went on to post 7 points in his final 10 games of the season, becoming much more noticeable on the ice. Byfield’s call-up seemed to have lit a fire under Vilardi and helped elevate his game to meet the new challenge.
As of now, going into training camp, you can probably pencil Vilardi into the second-line center position, and Byfield would then most likely be the third-line center. But if Vilardi’s game starts to slip again, you can almost bet Byfield would get a shot.
As Head Coach Todd McLellan recently pointed out, a young player’s evolution into meeting his own potential needs to happen with a sense of urgency to establish himself within the team’s lineup, “If you’re wearing a Kings jersey next year, you have to move forward, you have to get better. If not, then we have to replace the players that aren’t getting better…ultimately we need players to evolve as quickly as possible to get some real strong traction in the league and to emerge into the players that we think they can be.”
The ultimate winner in this friendly competition will no doubt be the Kings’ organization. With both of these young phenoms pushing each other to improve, the entire team will reap the benefits.
Going into next season, there are no guarantees as to where Byfield and Vilardi are slotted, but either way, the Kings will be a force to be reckoned with down the middle…not only this year but for years to come.