For most of this season, Gabriel Vilardi has been viewed as a probable top five selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. His position in the rankings faltered a little bit of late, though much of this had to do with excessive hype around Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar than anything Vilardi has done or hasn’t done. With his Windsor Spitfires knocked out in the first round of the OHL playoffs, he was inactive for a long period of time while final rankings were being constructed. Many had already finished their lists by the time he returned to action and played an instrumental role in the Spitfires winning the 2017 Memorial Cup.
The fact that Vilardi is so young (less than a month away from being a 2018 prospect) and yet we’ve heard so much about him going all the way back to the season is extremely impressive. I still firmly believe that he’s top five material, as does the consolidated average of our writers’ opinions: Vilardi sits at number 4 on our list.
- Age: 17 – August 16th, 1999
- Birthplace: Kingston, ON, CAN
- Frame: 6’3″ / 203 lbs
- Position: Centre
- Handedness: Right
- Draft Year Team: Windsor Spitfires
- Accomplishments/Awards: CHL Memorial Cup Champion, CHL Memorial Cup All-Star Team (16/17); OHL Second All-Rookie Team, U17 WHC Gold Medal (15/16); HEO Player of the Year (14/15)
Adjusted Scoring (SEAL)
Cohort Based (pGPS)
A dynamic and often brilliant offensive attacker…has skilled hands and outstanding awareness…looks to set up his linemates with timely passes, but can also finish off the play when the opportunity is there…has nice size and uses it to protect the puck…has a quick jump and agility on his feet, but is not really a speed demon screaming up the ice…plays aggressively both when his team does and does not have the puck; often hunting it down and stripping it from his opponent…has a bag of tricks he uses to shake defenders and get his hard, accurate wrist shot off or dish a soft pass…very difficult to knock off the puck and is able to dangle in very tight spaces while under heaps of defensive pressure…a toolsy center who is just scratching the surface of his potential…a constant threat in the offensive zone…has the look of a future offensive catalyst at the NHL level.
From the Hockey Prospect Black Book (Excerpt from publication):
Vilardi is at his best when cycling the puck down low. He has outstanding puck skills below the hash marks in the offensive zone. He already dominates in that area of the game as a 17-year old, beatin 19 and 20 year olds down low. For such a big forward, he is very slippery and evasive in tight areas down low and is extremely dangerous with the puck behind the net. He also wears down the opposition possessing good endurance. Gabe also has the ability to take the puck with power to the net. He has a powerful shot with excellent accuracy. Defensively he has intelligent positioning and takes away passing lanes. He uses his size and his great board play in the defensive zone and wins a lot of battles.
A dangerous two-way center that stays poised, calm, and composed in all situations. Skates well for his size and has no issues getting into position. Individual puck skills are at an elite level and he is able to play a finesse role. Makes excellent decisions with the puck and showcases a well-rounded understanding of both the offensive and defensive game. Uses his size to his advantage and keeps the opposition guessing because he is able to do so many different things, including: taking it himself to the net and powering through, making a seeing-eye pass, or holding off to piggyback a possession play. He already plays a mature yet dynamic game, and that indicates success for a long time at higher levels. All-in-all, a dexterous 200-foot player that is a consistent threat every time he is on the ice.
From Corey Pronman of ESPN (Excerpt only – full article behind pay wall):
Big men who can make plays with the puck are hard to find, and Vilardi fits the bill. His skill is legitimately at the top level, as his ability to maintain possession, create offense off the rush and evade pressure is as good as that of some of the better 5-foot-11 forwards. He also possesses good vision and can make tough distributions seem easy. He’ll battle hard for pucks and use his size well on some shifts, and although he isn’t perfectly consistent in that area, he has shown more edge in his game this season and has gotten better defensively because of it. Vilardi’s skating is an issue, with a below-average top gear.
From Scott Crawford of McKeen’s Hockey (Excerpt only – full article behind pay wall):
Vilardi could be taken top five for his skating ability alone. He is unbelievable when he moves down the ice and it is incredible to see him adjust his speed. He uses his smarts to help him figure out situations and how the puck will be played. I do somewhat question his compete level because against good teams he will put 100% into them, but against bad teams he will disappear at times when his coach wants him to play. He will dominate for Windsor next year given a full year of health.
Cerebral playmaker and student of the game blessed with exceptional puck skills and the size to enhance them. Vilardi has played wing most of his pre-draft season, but he’s a natural center who kills penalties and is used in all critical game situations. He owns an deadly shot in both accuracy and velocity, and his long reach doesn’t precent him from finishing within close proximity of the goal. You can make a strong argument for Vilardi being this draft’s best stickhandler, and he maintains control of the puck regardless of whether his zone entries are calm or violent. He is a gangly skater with average foot speed from a mobility standpoint, but his long reach when combined with his phenomenal IQ makes him difficult to contain off the rush. Vilardi plays with bite and doesn’t back down from a challenge, He will stand up for his teammates and displays leadership qualities despite being one of the younger players on a veteran team. There aren’t many players in this draft with legitimate top line upside, but Vilardi is certainly one of them.
Vilardi is a playmaking centre that possesses numerous elite talents. His IQ and vision are extraordinary, and his stickhandling abilities are potentially the best in this draft class. While his skating is often his most criticized attribute, it was always of above-average quality – however, I thought that his skating looked substantially better at the Memorial Cup than it had earlier in the year. Showing the ability to assess which of his abilities require improvement and then put in the work to improve them is a solid sign, and in this case, it alleviates one of the only concerns that teams might have about taking him in the top five.
Beyond the above mentioned talents, one of my favourite aspects of his game is his puck protection skills. For my money, I don’t believe there is another player available in 2017 that can protect the puck better down low than Gabe Vilardi.
Nearly impossible to strip the puck from, Vilardi weaves deep in the offensive zone, effortlessly fending off attackers, until a setup presents itself. At that point, he makes deft, accurate, deceptive passes that end up on the sticks of teammates before anyone else is aware that he’s moved the puck.
While there are no public forms of shot metrics for junior hockey, the positive effect that Vilardi has on his teammates has been revealed by Vilardi’s head coach in Windsor, Rocky Thompson. “The enhanced stats tell us [Vilardi] is the engine on this team because whoever plays with him, their Corsi numbers go straight up and are increased,” Thompson said. “Without him, they drop significantly. We’ve had a ton of injuries this year so it’s been a revolving door with our lines but the one common theme has been Vilardi’s ability to make the players with him even better.”
While we can’t verify that ourselves, we do have access to on-ice goal data, and it emphatically supports Thompson’s assertion. Each player fairs worse away from Vilardi, in some cases swinging as much as 10 or 20%.
On-ice results are not the only area in which Vilardi helps his teammates. They are tend to produce better while playing with him than away from him. Consider the following chart, plotting the 5-on-5 Points per 60 minutes of Vilardi and his most common linemates together and apart. For the most part, the teammates’ production rates take a sizable hit when they aren’t on the ice with Vilardi, sometimes substantially so (like in the case of Jeremiah Addison). This is particularly interesting because when they werenèt playing with Vilardi, they were playing with Vilardi’s older, star teammates Logan Brown and Jeremy Bracco.
Age factors into Vilardi’s dominance of the SEAL adjusted scoring metric, but so does the fact that he was lethal at even strength. SEAL has him second among draft eligible CHL players, and fifth among the draft class, with just a few Europeans playing at the professional level jumping ahead of him. The .23 increase in point rate from standard to SEAL was the largest of any CHL prospect in this draft.
Like Pettersson, there has been some debate about Vilardi’s ideal position, given that he played both centre and right wing this season. For the most part, this was a maneuver to ensure that he kept getting top six minutes, as the Spitfires were heavy on centres up front. At even strength, he spent a lot of time on Julius Nattinen’s right wing, while frequently playing centre on the power play – he was extremely productive in both situations.
I believe that Vilardi can be a centre in the NHL, and a potential first line centre at that. His ability to find teammates and distribute the puck would be very well utilized with him in the middle, particularly because he likes to hang on to it for so long while finding ideal options, and he tends to swing all along the width of the ice while doing so. Concerns over foot speed I think have been somewhat overblown, and will only become less of a potential issue as he continues to put the work in to improve it.
“Everyone’s on the same page – it’s his feet,” a scout told The Hockey News for their Draft Preview. “But his stick is lethal, and the skating will come.”
Vilardi reminds me a whole lot of Leon Draisaitl, and the skating plays into that. The playmaking, the shot, the size and the puck protection are shared attributes between the players, and the skating is a shared criticism. Yet Draisaitl demonstrated this season in Edmonton that those criticisms are entirely outdated. I could see a similar path for Vilardi in the near future.
Vilardi would be a smart pick any time after the second selection – I personally have him number 3 on my list. He spent the last two seasons in an NHL-type system in Windsor, and his game is tailor made for professional hockey. His skill set is off-the-charts impressive. He’s a can’t miss prospect.
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