Gabe Vilardi Is Making Up For Lost Time In Winnipeg

Gabe Vilardi Is Making Up For Lost Time In Winnipeg

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I’ve thought of Gabe Vilardi’s career as a bunch of flashes. He scored his first NHL goal 10 seconds into his first shift with the Los Angeles Kings, and the goal felt anything but instant. By the time of that 2020 debut, the 2017 first-round pick had already dealt with injuries beyond his years, including a back issue that kept him off the ice for almost the entire 2018-19 season. It wasn’t exactly a change of scenery that he needed when the Kings sent him to Winnipeg in a trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois this summer: Vilardi put up 41 points in 63 games with the Kings last year, his career-high in both points and games played. It was more that his scenery has always needed to be “the ice” and not “the trainer’s room.” Gabe Vilardi, the player, when he is playing games, is clearly good.

So yes, the MCL sprain that sidelined him for most of November felt like just another chapter in his frustrating story. But the fun thing about Vilardi is he’s bound to intrigue you between injuries. He’s scored a goal in each of his last four games, and his three-point night in Wednesday’s win against the Red Wings helped move the Jets into first place in the Central Division.

Vilardi, maybe like the ideal version of Dubois, lives at the front of the net, where he can put his 6-foot-3 frame and quick hands to use. Usually, this is as a finisher: Last year, 23 of his 41 points were goals. Vilardi has a knack for getting open, redirecting pucks, and turning even wonky passes into high-danger shots. (To fans’ delight, his goal song is “Macarena.”) A number of his goals look carelessly flung on net in real time, but much savvier on replay. His skills lend themselves well to playmaking, too, and he reads the ice well. “I’d describe myself as a shooter and a passer,” Vilardi told The Athletic. “I try to do a bit of everything well and just make good reads. I’m not someone that’s going to flash with speed—I’m more of a puck protection player who can slow the game down.”

The Kings may not miss the 24-year-old winger too much now that they’re in solid playoff position in the Pacific. But after Vilardi’s four-point game against them in his first return to Los Angeles last week, it was hard not to compare him to the guy he got traded for. Dubois has looked typically frustrating in 29 games with his new team, and the production— 12 points to Vilardi’s 13 in 16 fewer games—has underwhelmed. The win against the Kings might have been a double revenge game for Vilardi; he’d sprained his MCL in a collision with Blake Lizotte when Kings played the Jets in Winnipeg, and was frustrated by what he called a “stupid” play on Lizotte’s part. “It’s frustrating to think that guy sits in the box for two minutes and then I have to deal with what I’ve dealt with for the past month and a half,” he said.

It seems only right that a player with such bad injury luck should be smiled upon by the injury gods eventually. Earlier this month, Jets goalscorer Kyle Connor suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of the lineup through February. Into his place stepped Vilardi. The remade top line, centered by Mark Scheifele, with Vilardi and Nikolaj Ehlers on the wing, has been one of the best in the NHL. In 13 games together, they’re outshooting opponents 48-22 at 5-on-5, with a 67-percent expected goals percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick. The sample size is admittedly small, but that never stopped Gabe Vilardi from having a good time.

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