While 17-year-old center Gabriel Vilardi has been a force on the ice in the Ontario Hockey League for the Windsor Spitfires, at one time he could have gone a different route.
His parents are originally from Italy, where soccer is the pulse of country; his mother's cousin, Sebastiano Siviglia, is a former first division professional soccer player. However, his parents moved to Kingston, Ontario, where playing hockey is the norm. He and his brother Francesco, who plays for Queen's University Gaels Hockey, picked up the icy game and never looked back.
"I chose to play hockey but I play soccer in the summer with my dad and brother," Vilardi said to NHL.com. "As long as I can remember, though, I've always wanted to be a hockey player. I had some success at a young age and pushed even harder to develop, and I think that's why I stuck with it."
At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Gabriel Vilardi stands out on the ice. Add speed, composure and the ability to adapt in-game, it's no wonder NHL scouts are intrigued.
At the 2015 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Vilardi was on the Canada White team that won gold. He made a strong impact during the international competition, putting up four goals and seven total points in six games.
Vilardi was taken second overall by the Spitfires in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection after a strong season with the CHIA Voyageurs and winning the Eastern Ontario Player of the Year award in 2014-15.
In his OHL career with the Spitfires, the forward has 99 points (46 goals and 53 assists) in 111 regular season games. In 2015-16, Vilardi registered 17 goals and 21 assists to earn OHL Second All-Rookie Team honors. During the 2016-17 campaign, he took five weeks off to recover from an appendectomy in February and still averaged more than a point per game, totaling 61 points (29 goals and 32 assists) in just 49 contests.
During the playoffs the past two years, he played 12 games and scored three goals and seven assists for 10 points. He believes that puck control has been his most essential asset for success.
"I'm a three-zone player," Vilardi told NHL.com. "I'm a big player who works hard down low, good at making plays off the cycle and seeing plays before they happen."
Video: Altitude profiles Gabriel Vilardi
NHL Central Scouting's Matt Ryan praised Vilardi's ability to create goals and success for his team, making him the fourth ranked North American skater eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft.
"He's very composed with the puck, and uses his vision and playmaking ability to influence the game in all three zones," Ryan noted. "He excels below the dots in the offensive zone where he uses he size and reach to dictate the play and generate scoring opportunities."
The middleman spent much of the past year on a line with Logan Brown and Luke Boka. The combination was strong, showed teamwork and had great puck possession in the offensive zone. He performs best at center, but easily alternates to left wing when needed.
"He's so well-rounded and smart," Spitfires coach Rocky Thompson said. "He's extremely coachable; you can make adjustments in-game and change systems and he can adapt to those things because his hockey sense on the ice is very apparent."
Windsor's coaching staff also looked at analytics from line to line and noticed a positive difference when Vilardi is on the ice versus when he is not.
"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," explained Thompson. "Without him, they drop significantly. One common theme has been Vilardi's ability to make the players with him even better."
Vilardi finished the 2016-17 season strong, playing in the MasterCard Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League's biggest stage. He is the only player on the top 35 North American prospect list to have this honor.
"Every NHL team is going to be at this tournament, and every general manager is going to be watching [Vilardi]," Thompson said prior to the tournament. "He has a chance to make a big impression."
Vilardi came through and no doubt left an impression. During round robin play on May 24th, he was essential in his team's win against the Erie Otters. During the first period, he set up both goals for teammate Jeremiah Addison, to give the Spitfires a 2-0 lead. They went on to win the game 4-2, with Vilardi assisting on the final two goals as well. His four assists were just one shy of the Memorial Cup single-game record, held by Dan Hodgson, who had five assists for Prince Albert in 1985.
The Otters had a second chance at Windsor in the tournament final on May 28th, but the Spitfires held on to win the title game 4-3, with Vilardi recording two assists in the victory.
This win came as a surprise to most as the Spitfires were originally eliminated in the OHL playoffs against the London Knights back in April. Luckily, they were automatically eligible to play as the tournament host. They are the first team since the 2012 Shawinigan Cataractes to lose their league title but go on to win the Memorial Cup.
Although some might have buckled under the pressure of performing on one of the biggest stages in junior hockey and knowing they are being viewed as a top prospect for the 2017 Draft, Vilardi just saw it as an opportunity to perform even better. He is talented, but not satisfied yet.
"The [Central Scouting] ranking pushes me to work even harder; I'm not at the top and I want to get to the top," said Vilardi. "My mindset is, I want to always get better. That's the biggest thing."