The World Under-17 Hockey Challenge was a who’s who of top prospects for the 2017 and 2018 NHL Drafts. The top four picks from the OHL, QMJHL and WHL drafts all attended the event for Canada; among the players on that list was Joe Veleno, who went first overall in the 2015 QMJHL Draft after being granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, like John Tavares and Connor McDavid before him.
Even among all those stars, Gabe Vilardi managed to shine. He did more than that, in fact, scoring the game-winning goal in the gold medal game for Canada.
Vilardi is already an important player at the major-junior level. He has seven goals and 12 points in just 14 games for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires; he’s the only player under the age of 17 on his team with more than two points. His skill level is not in dispute.
“He’s a big rangy centreman who is a gifted playmaker,” said one scout. “At this level he has the ability to slow the game down. Has lulls during the course of the game but there’s no question he can play, [and] inconsistency is usually common at this age especially playing against older players. Very smart, slick. Has the confidence to hold onto the puck in order to find the open man. No panic.”
With Canada having a glut of centres even at the under-17 level, Vilardi shifted to right wing for most of the tournament. He put up seven goals in six games, including that gold-medal winner. He did more than just put up points, though: he was diligent on the backcheck and frequently displayed excellent awareness in the defensive zone.
Asked whether that was something he was working on, Vilardi acknowledged that it was. “Yeah, since last year,” he said. “I think I’ve really tried to play without the puck a little more. It makes sense—if you play right you get your chances in the offensive zone.”
Still, it’s his offensive game that really has NHL teams excited. “He’s a very skilled player with good size,” said another scout. “He sees plays quickly and he makes plays quickly. Obviously he has a very good shot.”
While the scouts I talked to all agreed that size, passing and shooting are all gifts, there were some slight reservations about his skating. “Skating, while good, needs some work,” said a scout. “He could work on his overall quickness.”
Added another scout: “His skating isn’t a concern at this point. Sometimes with bigger kids it takes a little while for them to grow into their frame, and the skating comes with that.”
The potential is there for Vilardi to be the complete package. He’s already 6-foot-2 and 185 lb., despite having just turned 16 in August, so he has the pro frame. His skating is already good, and should be better still by the time he competes for NHL employment in 2017-18. He can shoot, he can pass, he can think the game and he doesn’t mind going into traffic, with or without the puck.
There was a play in the preliminary round against the Czechs that didn’t result in a goal but was a great example of Vilardi’s ability. Defending against an opposition rush, he stole the puck at centre ice, carried it into the offensive zone, and then drew two defenders to himself before passing off to a teammate in open ice. In one play he showed good positional awareness defensively, the intelligence to take advantage of an opportunity and force a turnover, and then the hockey sense and passing vision to get the puck to an open man after drawing double coverage.
It was an impressive play, but then he’s an impressive player. “He’s a great player, sees the game really well,” raved teammate Evan Bouchard, who along with Vilardi manned the point on Canada’s first power-play unit. “It’s great to play with him.”