Our seventh annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown has begun! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings and the staff rankings to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 2, 2019, when the 2019-20 NHL season begins.
The last time Gabe Vilardi played anything even resembling a full season of hockey, he was a rookie center for the Windsor Spitfires. In the 2015-16 season, Vilardi played 62 of 68 possible games. He recorded 38 points — respectable for a first year player. Enough to gather some attention, at least.
The next season, Vilardi only played in 49 games, missing most of December 2016, and although Windsor was eliminated in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, through the system of having the host team participate in the Memorial Cup, the Spitfires used their long rest to regroup and eventually capture the championship. Vilardi’s performance in that shortened season was enough for the Kings to take a chance on him in the 2017 NHL Draft.
At the time, the public concern with Vilardi’s ceiling in the NHL — and the reason that many speculated was behind Vilardi’s fall in the draft — was due to skating ability rather than health. Most of the criticisms of him were of his awkward skating style, but as the Kings well know, that’s something that could be improved with additional training and effort. And even if his skating never quite improved to make him a viable NHL center, he could easily be shifted out to wing, where he wouldn’t need quite the same speed and mobility.
So an injury shortened season didn’t seem to be cause for concern. After all, injuries happen. Hardly anyone talked about whether that should be a red flag. And he bounced back quickly, never appearing to lose a step on the ice when he returned. And so immediately after his draft in 2017, Vilardi made his debut on this very list at number two, with the hip injury that kept him from participating in rookie camp that year being an afterthought at best.
And then the next season, Vilardi played even fewer games. In the 2017-18 season, a back injury limited him to just 32 for the Kingston Frontenacs. From his Memorial Cup-winning game on May 28, 2017, Vilardi didn’t play competitive hockey for over seven months, next taking the ice on January 5, 2018. He still recorded 58 points, which placed him second in the entire OHL in terms of points per game (1.81, behind only Jordan Kyrou), and had an outstanding playoff run, with 22 points in 16 games.
It was a sign of something to hope for — Vilardi, returning to hockey, stepping right back into a dominant role, despite the long layoff. Last summer, he earned the top spot on this list thanks to his strong run in an injury-shortened season.
But we all know what happened next: Vilardi re-aggravated his back injury, costing him essentially the entire 2018-19 season. He played in four games as part of a conditioning stint with the Ontario Reign, looking not entirely out of place in limited minutes. After that, instead of making his NHL debut, the Kings loaned Vilardi back to Hockey Canada for their selection camp for the World Juniors competition. His back injury didn’t allow him to get through camp, however, and he was cut from the team. The Kings technically reassigned Vilardi to the OHL, but he didn’t play a single game for Kingston.
And then — he just basically disappeared.
The Kings currently say very little about Vilardi. The initial reports last year were that they were working more on injury and rehab management — which made sense. Ever try telling a super-competitive teenage boy that he has to do something that will slow him down and keep him from competing for a while? Even if it’s the best thing for him in the long run, it’s still an uphill battle to keep him on the right track. It made sense that the long layoff and rehab for Vilardi was about teaching him to manage his new “normal” — understanding how to stretch and exercise and rest and do all the things that would allow him to play hockey and have a life outside of the rink, where he could still do things like tie his shoes and bend over.
The last word the general public has heard about Vilardi from the Kings was back in May, when Jon Rosen quoted the hockey ops department as saying: “Still in holding pattern – awaiting clearance for training/skating protocol going forward.” The injury, which has been described as a combination of muscular and disc issues, is still being rehabbed. Vilardi hasn’t been spotted on ice, and he’s not on the roster for the upcoming rookie faceoff games.
No news is usually good news, but in this case, we’re not so sure. It’s a sensitive issue, of course, and there’s the need to balance a player’s privacy with the desire to be even a little transparent about his status.
Vilardi is a talented playmaker with a well-developed, responsible style of play. He would undoubtedly be an asset to the team. Even if his injury history means that his minutes need to be monitored and that he’s no longer the top six center of the future for the Kings, he could still provide punch to a middle/bottom six role, take on power play responsibilities, something. Clearly the first priority needs to be his health, but knowing that a player with this much potential exists just out of our reach is beyond frustrating.
His precipitous fall down these rankings can be attributed almost entirely to the fact that we simply have no idea when he will suit up for the Kings or Reign, or, more drastically, if he will ever actually play pro hockey again. We’re hoping for the best.
One of the things I was most curious about, going into this year’s Top 25 Under 25 series, was to find out where Gabe Vilardi was going to be ranked. Writers and readers both are justifiably conflicted about where to rank him. Talent-wise, there’s no argument that he belongs in the top 10 at the very least, but the uncertainty comes in when you consider the apparent severity of his injury. He’s an intriguing talent to be sure, and the idea of a future center lineup of Anze Kopitar, Alex Turcotte, and Vilardi is very enticing. But without any assurances that he will ever return to health enough to play, he received just enough late-in-list votes to pull him down to the middle of our rankings.