Can Gabe Vilardi become a star for the Winnipeg Jets?

Mar 20, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Kings right wing Gabriel Vilardi (13) reacts during first period against Calgary Flames at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 20, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Kings right wing Gabriel Vilardi (13) reacts during first period against Calgary Flames at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports /

Gabe Vilardi will report to Winnipeg for training camp as one of the most interesting players to wear a Jets uniform in years. He’s the biggest piece of the what the Jets have to show for after the dominoes fell from Patrik Laine’s trade request back in 2021. Laine was eventually traded for Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Dubois has since turned into Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Alex Iafallo, and a 2nd round draft choice.

But make no mistake about it, Vilardi is the centerpiece and the determining factor to how well revisionist history looks back on that trade in five years. And at the moment he is certainly a downgrade from either Laine or Dubois.

And that’s part of what makes it so interesting.

Vilardi comes to The ‘Peg with a mountain of question marks that add to the intrigue, build on the excitement, and also brings on a bit of caution as to what realistic expectations are.

A 6’3 winger who has played center in the past, he’s also a former 11th overall pick. The talent and skill set were clearly desirable when he was draft eligible, and though he’s had his hurdles – primarily injuries – he comes to Winnipeg after setting career highs across the board: 63 games, 23 goals, 18 assists, and 41 points.

He’s signed for two years at a $3.43 million cap hit before becoming a restricted free agent. What should we expect?

We’ll take a look at the reasons for excitement and optimism, and caution and weariness.

1st round pedigree, highly skilled, 6 foot 3, and a scorching hot start

The optimistic and best case scenario for Vilardi would be that he becomes a top line center/winger, capable of scoring around 30 goals and 35 assists. Based on his statistical profile, he leans goal scorer, and might not ever become a guy who finds the 80 point mark, and that’s okay. Goal scorers are very valuable.

Early last season, playing primarily on the Los Angeles Kings’ top line alongside Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe, he exploded out of the gate early for 8 goals in his first 11 games. By the end of November, he was cruising along with 13 goals and 18 points through his first 24 games. That’s a snapshot of the possibility; a seductive but unsustainable 40 goal pace, and a meagre amount of assists. He actually went the entirety of November – 13 games – without registering a single assist. Amusingly enough, he did register an assist on the last day of October and the first day of December. I guess he wasn’t feeling super generous throughout November.

The other part of the optimism surrounding Vilardi is his pre-NHL career. Vilardi dominated the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs in his draft + 1 year, scoring 22 goals and 58 points in just 32 games. He was also successful in the AHL at a young age. As a 21 year old, he tallied 9 goals and 25 points in 32 games, a combination of age and production that suggests he could be a meaningful attacking forward at the NHL level. Really, he’s already shown he’s capable of that, he just needs to prove he can do it consistently over longer periods of time and against tougher competition.

Vilardi’s calling card seems to be high spatial awareness, a strong two-way presence, and strength on the puck with good hands. He, according to The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler back in July 2018, is a player “who’s most dangerous when he’s just making simple plays, winning battles on the cycle, and hanging onto the puck to allow lanes to open up for a shot or a cross-seam pass.”

By all accounts, Vilardi seems to be a player without eye-popping tools, just an overall package combined with size and hockey sense that is effective.

With that in mind, he could be a great fit on the cycle with Scheifele, who is also strong along the wall. With Kyle Connor providing his usual shifty self on the left side, the Jets could ice a pretty lethal top line.

Despite his skills and production, we should all proceed with caution

The main question with Vilardi for me is two-fold: why, as an 11th overall pick, did it take until he was 23 years old to find the 20 goal and 40 point mark, and why, after a hot start this season, did he cool down so much?

Any conversation with Vilardi has to be caveated immediately with the well-known fact that he missed nearly two years of hockey with chronic back issues. From 2017-18, his final year in junior, to 2019-20, his second year as a pro, he missed a significant amount of time. His total games played for each of those years was 32, 4, and 42, respectively.

That’s a lot of missed hockey. In fact, the last two seasons were the most he’s ever played in his career, combining for 64 games two seasons ago split between the NHL and AHL, and the 63 games he played last season (along with 5 more playoff games). So, health alone is success for the Kingston native. Now he needs to build on it.

This missed hockey can be perceived two ways, though. Is missing over 100 games as an 18 and 19 year old prospect development time that is forever lost? Or, optimistically, is this a “young” 23 year old, one who hasn’t gotten the same development time as his peers, and therefore one who has a bit more track left on his development curve despite his age? It’s an interesting question. One I’m unqualified to answer, though I lean toward the latter. I’ve got patience for this guy, and it’ll be really interesting to see how far he can come before his two year deal expires.

The other concern is that Vilardi’s play really dropped off over the final 3/4 of the season. He got off to a hot start, and through the first quarter of the season, he amassed over half of his final season’s tally of goals and points. Part of that is due to missing nearly a month in January and February. But part of that is a hot start and mediocre finish.

The other piece to the puzzle is opportunity. He played roughly 10 games with Kopitar last season on the top line, but spent the majority of his time on the third line, centered by Blake Lizotte. He did get a boat load of power play time last season though, earning 2:58 of power play ice time per game, 3rd on the team. He was clearly a part of the first unit, and 9 of this 43 points were generated on the power play. A small concern, however, would be that in the limited sample that is the playoffs, he averaged 1:28 of power play time, 9th on the team. Was that due to him coming back from an injury to finish the season last year? Or had Kings coach Todd McLellan decided that he was no longer suited for top power play time when everything was on the line?

These are the challenges in trying to decipher his semi-breakout season.

The optimism, however, should come to light when it comes to the Jets lineup. This team lost two of its key top six players this off-season in Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois. That’s a lot of available power play time, and a lot of available top 6 minutes alongside our premium players.

If I had to rank our forwards based on this season’s possible contributions, it would go like this:

  1. Mark Scheifele
  2. Kyle Connor
  3. Nikolaj Ehlers
  4. Gabe Vilardi
  5. Cole Perfetti
  6. Nino Niederreiter
  7. Vladislav Namestnikov
  8. Alex Iafallo
  9. Adam Lowry

That, to me, is a compelling top 9 with varied skillsets, style, and size profiles. There will be lots of room for head coach Rick Bowness to get creative. Moreover, the now departed Dubois and Wheeler have left a vacuum of space in the lineup, leaving ample opportunity for new and old Jets alike to find ways to contribute.

It will be up to Vilardi to maximize the massive opportunity in front of him. To prove his overall consistency as an attacking threat at the NHL level, and to possibly make the transition to playing center – a position that long term is a huge question mark for the Jets.

If all goes well, he can become more than a top six forward and develop into a top line contributor. And we’ll keep open a slim chance of him really going off and becoming a bonafide star forward.

Hopefully, he stays healthy while doing it all.