Gabriel Vilardi figures he’s ahead of the game, as far as being a prodigy who is well-adjusted to hockey’s workaday reality is concerned.
Few prospects are immune to needing repairs physically, due to the intensive schedule of major junior hockey. Vilardi, the 18-year-old Los Angeles Kings first-rounder, has had belated starts to each of the last two seasons, most recently due to a back injury that kept him out of the Kings training camp and off skates until well into the fall.
However, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound centre believes he’s come out of all that – that being a long summer of rehab work with the Kings’ staff – with a concept of how to stave off injuries. Averaging exactly two points per game for his hometown Kingston Frontenacs whilst spending winter months at home with his parents, Natale Vilardi and Giovanna Siviglia, is pretty nice too.
“Getting my body ready to play, that’s the main thing I learned in L.A.,” Vilardi said on Monday after contributing three points toward Kingston’s 5-2 home win against the Barrie Colts. “I know more about doing a lot of activation stuff, before a practice, before a game. Making sure you’re firing the right muscles, that you’re not overusing your back, that your glutes (gluteal muscles) and core are activated. I’ve brought it here to Kingston and it helps a lot.
“I was in L.A. the whole summer with one of the best staffs I’ve ever worked with,” added Vilardi, who played through back pain while helping the Windsor Spitfires win the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup. “It was really tough some days, like the first few weeks. One day you’d feel strength coming back; the next day you’re really tired. It’s much better, I’m finding much more consistency in my game. I’ve been through injuries before and it’s a process.”
Vilardi was a better than a point-a-game scorer, no mean feat for a 17-year-old on a veteran team built around defence, last season in Windsor. Being moved east meant heightened expectations for one of the best below-the-hashes offensive players in the 2017 draft cohort.
“They got me here to score goals and make plays in the offensive zone,” Vilardi said. “I’m just trying to play my game, whatever that involves on any given night.”
The Frontenacs (.632 points pct., holding the No. 3 seed in the OHL Eastern Conference) are 15-5-1 with Vilardi in the lineup, compared to 17-14-5 before his arrival. They have maintained a three-line attack and defensive depth even though two of GM Darren Keily’s other three deadline additions, D Sean Day (knee) and LW Max Jones (hand), are considered week-to-week with injuries.
“We have some really skilled hockey players here,” Vilardi said. “Three good lines almost every night, good defence, (Carolina Hurricanes draft choice Jeremy) Helvig in goal. It’s just a matter of developing chemistry, getting to know each other a little more, like when we spend time on the road.”
The time at home counts too for Vilardi, who three years ago had a jumpstart on leaving the nest when he moved to the Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockland, Ont., to get ready for the 2015 OHL draft.
“Being here I get to stay with my family, which is great,” he said. “I left when I was 14 and that was tough. I know not too many people get the opportunity to play junior hockey in their hometown and I’m having fun so far.”
’Hounds pound home point
Never read too much into two games, except perhaps when the team in first overall waxes the next two highest teams in the standings by a combined 17-1. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, with Taylor Raddysh (TB), Jack Kopacka (ANA) and overage Hayden Verbeek each getting five points while 12 of their teammates had at least one, worked over the Hamilton Bulldogs (10-0) and Sarnia Sting (7-1) rather thoroughly last weekend.
— Teri Pecoskie (@TeriatTheSpec) February 17, 2018
There is still the matter of the roughly three months left in the OHL season, but the Greyhounds (.860 points pct.) averred that the J. Ross Robertson Cup is theirs to lose. Interestingly enough, those peak performances came immediately after the Greyhounds had a two-game tailspin that put the 2004-05 London Knights’ record of 59 regular-season wins mathematically out of reach. Given a greater margin for error mentally, minus the distraction of chasing a record, Sault Ste. Marie was untouchable.
Of course, no one is conceding anything to the Greyhounds.
Sarnia, that blowout notwithstanding, holds a 2-2-1 record in the season series. Sault Ste. Marie’s next potential statement games will be on the second weekend of March, when they visit the Midwest Division-leading Kitchener Rangers and surging Owen Sound Attack.
Sault Ste. Marie caught Eastern Conference-leading Hamilton while it was on a downswing. The Bulldogs have been a .500 team across their last 10 games and rearranged the leadership letters over the weekend in an attempt to shake their stasis.
— Louis Butko (@TSN_LouisB) February 20, 2018
Gruden was asked about it after the game: "We did a team vote" continued, "Now that we have a whole new team. Everyone is a leader, an or a C is not indicative of what should change as a player, as a teammate." #OHL
— Louis Butko (@TSN_LouisB) February 20, 2018
Stankowski facing a long road
There is confirmation that Carl Stankowski, who was the toast of Kent, Wash., last May after helping the WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds as a 16-year-old rookie goalie, will not play this season. As the 17-year-old Stankowski detailed to mynorthwest.com on Monday, he needed surgery to repair a small disc herniation and severe inflammation in his back. Subsequently, blood tests showed the goaltender was positive for one of the genetic markers for an autoimmune disease.
— Andy Eide (@AndyEide) February 19, 2018
Talk about a twist of fate, but it appears Stankowski, who’s already beaten the odds on one level by making it to major junior as a 5-foot-9 goalie, is bent on making it back to the WHL. The Thunderbirds, meantime, doing a commendable job of avoiding a post-Mathew Barzal malaise, hanging on to a wild-card playoff spot with 18-year-old goalies Dorrin Luding and Matt Hughes splitting starts.
The days appear numbered for the last Olympic-size ice surface in the entire Canadian Hockey League, which brings up a point about a missed opportunity for the sport and industry.
The QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Saguenéens are playing, temporarily, at the Palais des Sports in Jonquière, Que., since Centre Georges-Vézina is closed due to concerns about the support structure of its roof. In the short run, all concerned appear to be making the best of a bad situation. The Saguenéens drew an announced 2,724, their sixth-largest home crowd of the season, for their first game (of at least six) in Jonquière last Sunday. The predicament has also accelerated talk about building a new arena.
— Jonathan Hudon (@johudon) February 18, 2018
Any discussion about a new arena, anywhere, should include putting a bug in someone’s ear about the need for a wider ice surface to accommodate stronger and swifter players. It’s rather amazing the NHL standard 200-by-85 that’s been in place since 1929 has become as inviolable as the distance between home plate and the pitching rubber in baseball. Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke, most notably, has been vocal about the NHL needing an ice sheet up to 92 feet wide to allow for more flow and spacing, without becoming a virtual non-contact sport, which can often happen on the 100-foot-wide Olympic surface.
Lockstep thinking, as it were, has eliminated the chance to test that theory out in developmental leagues. It wasn’t that long ago that the OHL had rival teams, Kingston and the old Belleville Bulls, both playing on wider-than-regulation sheets. Now both cities, the latter with the AHL Belleville Senators, play on the same standardized sheet as everyone else. It’s never too late to give a good idea a shot, though.
Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Kailer Yamamoto, RW, Spokane Chiefs (WHL)
Yamamoto is making his final weeks in the Dub count; try 37 points in 16 games since returning from the world junior championship. What might be unappreciated about the waterbug winger’s tear is that Yamamoto (No. 22 overall to the Edmonton Oilers in 2017) is facing a regular schedule of U.S. Division rivals who ought to have an extra bit of familiarity with his tendencies. Nevertheless, Yamamoto has had 12 multi-point games in the last five weeks. Spokane has also won the only two games where he was kept off of the scoresheet.
On Sunday, Yamamoto scored his 100th WHL goal. Getting to 300 points – he would need 24 and Spokane has 14 games left – is attainable.
New name to know: Alex Morozoff, LW, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Morozoff, who lasted until the No. 149 overall choice in the bantam draft two years ago, has quickly gained a foothold since joining Red Deer in January. The 16-year-old Saskatoon native has helped Red Deer go on an unexpected run – 8-1-1-0 in their last 10 games – to move into playoff position in the WHL Central Division, chipping in five points (four goals, one assist) in 19 games since being summoned from the Saskatoon Contacts midgets. The Rebels projected Morozoff as a potential top-six forward when he was selected and it appears they might have something.