We’ve reached the final week of our Top 25 Under 25 countdown! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings (50%) and the staff rankings (50%) to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 5, 2017, when the 2017-18 NHL season begins.
We’re taking a look at the best and the brightest in the Los Angeles Kings organization in our fifth annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown. The readers and staff were understandably excited about LA’s first-round pick, who debuts at #2: Gabriel Vilardi.
2016-17 Team: Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 49 GP, 29 G, 32 A, 61 P
Current NHL Projection (via NHLe): 82 GP, 15 G, 16 A, 31 P
Jewels Reader Ranking: 2
Jewels Staff Ranking: 2
After missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, there was one silver lining fans of the Los Angels Kings could comfort themselves with: heading to the 2017 NHL Draft with their best position since taking Brayden Schenn fifth overall in 2009. Once the dust of the lottery had settled, the Kings were slated to pick 11th. Significant, as it was the slot in which they selected Anze Kopitar, 12 years ago.
Of course, there are hits and misses in every draft. No savvy Kings’ fan was deluding themselves into believing they would find another multi-Cup-winning, franchise center. The hope was a talented lottery ticket like Nick Suzuki or Owen Tippett might still be on the board once their name was called. What no one expected (including the Kings themselves) was to see highly regarded center Gabriel Vilardi still on the board when the Kings were set to pick.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie had him ranked fifth. SB Nation’s Scott Wheeler said third, as did ESPN’s Corey Pronman. Future Considerations and Craig Button fourth, Jeff Marek sixth. Regardless of where you look, no pre-draft ranking had Vilardi outside the top ten.
The big center has averaged 0.89 points per game during his OHL career, and 1.24 points per game last year, his age-17 season. That scoring rate was good enough for third in the OHL among under-18 players. Much like Kings’ second-round pick Jaret Anderson-Dolan, he just missed the cutoff to be eligible for this year’s draft, and he was still under 18 when the Kings selected him.
Vilardi gets high marks for his hockey IQ and scouts rave about his shot and playmaking ability. Described as a physical player, he plays a controlled game, cited for only 26 penalty minutes across 111 games in his career. Instead, he uses his large frame to protect the puck and maintain possession. He is a beast below the dots, keeping play in the attack zone and creating space for his wingers. Sound familiar?
After a solid showing in the OHL playoffs, Vilardi led Windsor to a Memorial Cup title, notching seven assists in four games. His strong play in these tournaments raised his profile considerably, leading many experts to crown the big center among the “best of the rest” of the 2017 draft, after all-world talents Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick.
With all this glowing praise heading into the draft, why did eight other teams pass on him after Hischier and Patrick were off the board? The Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche drafted for need, taking defensemen with the next two picks. The next five picks were all centers before sniping winger Tippett was selected one spot ahead of Vilardi.
Still, with the exception of maybe Cody Glass, picked by Vegas at number six, none of those centers were described with the type of superlatives that analysts showered upon Vilardi. The one negative assigned to the big center was his skating ability, and that was likely what scared the other teams off. The NHL, as they say, is a copycat league, with teams placing a premium on speed thanks to the recent success of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Kings, perhaps more than any team, are not deterred by poor-skating prospects. Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were knocked for their skating at the time of their respected drafts. Toffoli has been one of the Kings’ top scorers since making his debut, while Pearson has turned around that narrative completely and now receives high marks for his skating. Anze Kopitar has never been much of a burner and has managed to carve out a pretty decent career for himself. It remains to be seen whether that speed will improve, or whether it’d be a problem if it didn’t, but Vilardi’s talent could overcome all of that.
Nobody expects Vilardi to turn into Kopitar, but if he becomes even a poor-man’s version, the Kings will surely take it. A hip injury prevented him from participating in rookie camp and the Kings are understandably taking it slow with their prized prospect. He will rejoin the Windsor Spitfires for his third OHL season. Just a month after his 18th birthday, look for the still-growing 6’2” center to overwhelm his peers in the upcoming season.