LOS ANGELES — Although we’re only going to get 56 regular season games (post-season play notwithstanding) to watch the Los Angeles Kings in the 2021 season, we will finally get to see forward prospect Gabe Vilardi at full speed.
Indeed, Vilardi has put the issues related to his back injury and subsequent surgery in 2017 behind him, and this past summer, he was able to train without having to focus on rehabilitation work.
“It’s the first time in three years now that I actually got to spend the summer working on getting better, and not focusing on getting my body back to playing again,” he said. “I thought it was really good for me. I put a lot of work in with the guys here, [Strength and Conditioning coach Matt Price], [Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach Trent Frey] and those guys, they helped me out a lot.”
The off-season work will go a long way for Vilardi, who was well short of where he needed to be, in terms of his conditioning, last season, and it showed after he was recalled to the Kings on February 20, 2020.
“I think the biggest thing for me was conditioning,” he said. “Both in the AHL and the NHL, my shifts would kind of fall off when I hit the 15-second mark. I would start to feel it, my legs would start to feel it.”
“Last year, there would be games where I was feelimg good,” he added. “I was moving and thinking the game. [But then, there would be] games where I wasn’t thinking the game well, I was slow to react, and my legs felt heavy. So [the prolonged off-season] was good in that aspect because it prepared me for the summer, which was longer than intended. But it helped me to know what I needed to work on.”
Head coach Todd McLellan also noted that Vilardi’s lack of conditioning was readily apparent, but not unexpected.
Hea“Last year, we protected him a little bit, one, because it was brand new to him and two, because his engine wasn’t—it ran high, but it petered out quickly,” he said. “That wasn’t anything we didn’t expect, and I know that he’s worked on that.”
“Gabe looks like a different man right now, physically,” he added. “He looks stronger, I think his engine is much better— we’re going to find out in the games. The fact that he did all the work should make him feel comfortable and confident in what he can or can’t do on the ice, and having that confidence is a real big thing.”
After all the off-season training, Vilardi has already noticed a positive difference.
“Obviously, I haven’t played a game yet, but I think my conditioning is so much improved, and that comes from actually having a summer to train,” he beamed. “I’m excited to see how I feel. We have the scrimmage on Saturday and I’m excited to see how my legs feel. I think I’m in pretty good shape right now. If I’m not in good shape, I don’t know what else I can do to get in good shape.”
Vilardi has also added muscle to his frame, but that wasn’t his top priority.
“I wasn’t worried about gaining a bunch of weight,” said Vilardi, who indicated that he is up to somewhere between 215 and 220 pounds—he was listed at 201 last season. “I wanted to get my legs a little thicker and stronger for battles in the corners, stuff like that. But the biggest thing for me was conditioning. I’ve been focused on that, and having the summer to actually train has really helped. I can feel it on the ice. I’m not huffing and puffing after a 20-second drill.”
Going back to his recall to the Kings last season, despite lagging behind in terms of his conditioning, the experience he gained was invaluable.
“It was huge for me, just getting that experience,” he noted. “There’s a little bit of a speed change, for sure. Guys think the game so much faster in the NHL compared to the AHL.”
“It was huge for me to see what I needed to work on this summer,” he added. “Going back to the conditioning—that was the biggest thing, and consistency. That comes with consistency and my mentality.”
So far, in the rather abbreviated 2020-21 training camp, Vilardi has been centering a line with Adrian Kempe on left wing and Martin Frk on the right side.
“I really I like playing with those guys,” he said. “Juice [Kempe] is fast. He pushes the defense back because of his speed. Frky—I played with him last year. He’s snart. He’s underrated with the puck—he’s not just a shooter. He can pass the puck very well, and you already know how he shoots the puck. I know that if I get him the puck in a prime scoring area, there’s a good chance that it’s going in the net.”
Frk shared simliar sentiments about playing with Vilardi.
“Much easier because I was used to playing with him [with the Kings because] we played so many games together down in Ontario,” he noted. “You get the chemistry going, Gabe makes my job easy. He’s more of a passer, so for me, I just have to get to an open spot on the ice where he can deliver the puck to me.”
“I’m really happy that I can play with that kind of player,” he added. “He likes to pass. The only thing I’ve got to do is put it in.”
Given Vilardi’s improved conditioning, McLellan has significantly higher hopes for the young center this season.
“I’d like to turn him loose and play him as much as we can,” he indicated. “But he’s got to show us that he’s able to maintain a high level of play and handle those minutes against anybody, and that won’t be just him. It’ll [also] be his line mates as we go forward.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center prospect Gabe Vilardi (right), shown here during practice at the Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo, California, March 3, 2020. Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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