If Gabriel Vilardi scores 20 goals for Los Angeles this season, the Kings will challenge the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the NHL’s Pacific Division.
I know, I’m making a lot of assumptions with that statement. Maybe the Oilers won’t be the pick of the litter. The Calgary Flames are on the prowl. And the Vegas Golden Knights looked solid Tuesday night, beating the Kings 4-3 on a Mark Stone count with less than a minute left in regulation time.
But I absolutely believe the Kings will be there. In our Daily face-to-face preseason predictions, I took the Kings to finish third in the Pacific. Behind Edmonton and Calgary but ahead of Vegas. And firmly in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Kings took a big step forward last season, pushing the Oilers to seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even though LA lost, it was a glimpse of the young talent that was starting to produce at the NHL level.
Arthur Kaliyev has scored 14 times – six on the power play – despite averaging less than 13 minutes of ice time per game. Sean Durzi has shown signs of becoming a top defenseman who moves the puck. And Adrian Kempe, who represented the Kings in the 2021-22 NHL All-Star Game, found the back of the net 35 times.
All three aforementioned players have room to grow. But neither did Vilardi, who I believe has only scratched the surface of his talent at the NHL level. And to me, that’s the biggest question facing the Kings.
Can Vilardi live up to the lofty expectations of being the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft?
This is a difficult question to answer because the threshold for success is fluid. The value of a first-round pick can be measured in different ways. But for Vilardi, I think the metric is pretty clear: LA needs him to score. Like that laser on the crossbar on Tuesday night.
There’s a lot to love about this clip. Vilardi, along with linemates Quinton Byfield and Alex Iaffalo, outplayed the Golden Knights in the offensive zone and created several scoring chances before the puck finally found the back of the net.
Vilardi wins the initial battle against Golden Knights defenseman Ben Hutton. He stops behind the net. Vilardi jumps on the ice and claims the puck from Byfield. Then he is able to find a small window for his shot to go past Vegas goaltender Logan Thompson.
Details matter. And Vilardi does pretty much whatever it takes to achieve his goal. But listen carefully. ESPN play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen mentions that Kings head coach Todd McLellan thought Vilardi was probably the best preseason player for Los Angeles. Similar thoughts were expressed during the coach’s post-match press conference.
When McLellan says Vilardi has won the opportunity to be in key situations, it’s very telling for me. A coach does not want to hide players. Or feel uncomfortable with them in tense moments.
And that’s where I think a big part of the Kings’ season hinges on Vilardi. If McLellan can continue to trust him, the 23-year-old from Kingston, Ont., will play a big role in rounding out the Kings’ scoring depth.
Last season, I felt the last six were missing in Los Angeles. But with the acquisition of Kevin Fiala this summer, and Viktor Arvidsson healthy again, suddenly the Kings look deep.
Not so long ago, I thought Alex Iaffalo had an outside chance to make the US Olympic team. He was playing in the first six minutes in Los Angeles. He’s now on the third line with Vilardi and Byfield, which is actually a plus for the Kings. This means they are deep. And Vilardi now has the skills and the speed to play.
It’s clear to me that the Kings have a more diverse even-strength offense. But I really think Vilardi has the chance to make the most noise on the power play.
Kings need it. Last season, Los Angeles was 26th in the NHL with the man advantage, converting at a rate of just 12.5%.
During his 89-game NHL career, six of Vilardi’s 18 goals came on the power play. But I expect that total to increase. Not just because of the players surrounding him on the Kings. Because of what happened last year when Vilardi was sent to the AHL.
Sometimes a young prospect is rushed into a situation. And I think it could have happened early in Vilardi’s career. I don’t think he was quite ready for the NHL. When the Kings sent him to their minor league branch in Ontario, it was probably the best thing the franchise could have done.
Vilardi went to the AHL and dominated. He was almost a point-per-game player. Vilardi scored 15 goals in 39 games, eight times on the power play.
Being a major contributor had to be good for Vilardi, whether he was in the minors. And with that comes confidence and maturity. As a high first-round pick, the pressure can be devastating on a player when they are demoted. I’m impressed that Vilardi was able to put the noise aside.
Back to my prediction. Twenty goals are quite achievable for Vilardi. He’s already eating up the minutes Dustin Brown used to get. And judging by Tuesday, he has chemistry alongside Byfield and Iaffalo. The Kings have three solid lines and a defense that can move the puck. Vilardi will benefit from all this.
But trust is key. And that must come with confidence. Coaching staff and teammates. Last season I saw flashes of regular play from Vilardi. But it wasn’t consistent.
Bringing it every night is a must for Vilardi. He has done so so far this season. And for me, he’s riding a wave of confidence that’s a direct result of spending most of last season in the AHL.
It’s hard to attribute a team’s chances of success to just one player. But the Kings patiently waited with Vilardi. And if he can pocket 20 while skating on Los Angeles’ third line, watch out. The Kings will have the firepower to take on Edmonton.
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