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INSIDER: Vilardi Impresses in Pro Debut, Sets Sights on Team Canada

A look at how the 2017 First Round Pick performed during his stint with the Ontario Reign, and what to expect as he heads to training camp for the 2019 WJC

by Zach Dooley @ReignInsider / LAKings.com

The highly touted Gabe Vilardi began both his age-18 and age-19 season in the NHL with the LA Kings. The only problem was, he began both seasons on the injured reserve list.

A chronic back injury delayed Vilardi's professional debut until November 29 - 421 days after the 2017-18 NHL season had begun, when the native of Kingston, Ontario finally saw game action with the AHL's Ontario Reign.

Leading up to that first game, Vilardi had been slowly working his way back into a game-ready state, moving from off-ice workouts only, into skating by himself, to non-contact practices with the Kings and finally into full-on practices with both the Kings and the Reign.

"It's tough skating by yourself for so long and with just practice it's tough, too," Vilardi said during his first week with Ontario. "It's really different than getting guys coming at you and you have to react and make plays."

While not an NHL debut, the return to game action and the introduction to the professional game still stood as a milestone for the young forward. To finally return to game action after more than seven months away, represented another step in what has taken a lot of hard work. 

"It was definitely a long time coming," Vilardi said after his professional debut, which came in a 3-2 win over the Bakersfield Condors. "I've been working hard from the summer, a lot of rehab, it's definitely a relief."

Tweet from @ontarioreign: Gabe Vilardi gives his thoughts after his professional debut with the #Reign! pic.twitter.com/W1w8GlbIAd

Vilardi did not find the scoresheet in his debut, but finished with two shots on goal, including a pair of high-quality chances, one apiece in the first and third periods. The 6-3 forward did, however, showcase some of the attributes that led to him being the 11th overall selection in the 2017 NHL Draft.

"I thought, for his first game, with as long as he's been off, he certainly shows a real hockey sense," Reign Head Coach Mike Stothers said. "He's got an awareness of where he should be, what he should be doing, sorting things out, whether it's a neutral zone forecheck or defensive zone coverage. I think that's really encouraging, that there's a good hockey mind there to go along with the talent that he has."

Fast forward three days and the scoring story changed. With the game tied at three in the third period of a Sunday afternoon clash between Ontario and the Tucson Roadrunners, Vilardi found the puck to the right of the net in the offensive zone and fed linemate Philippe Maillet in front for the goal, collecting the first point of his professional career.

Video: Gabe Vilardi records his first professional point

Vilardi showed an ability to do many of the little things the right way throughout his four-game stint with Ontario.

The big-bodied forward created in small spaces and showcased his playmaking ability, even if the chances didn't lead to scoring opportunities or goals on each occasion.

For going more than seven months in between his final game in the 2018 OHL playoffs and his professional debut this season, Vilardi began to feel more comfortable as he played more and more with the Reign.

"I kind of have a sense now of where I need to be, and I feel comfortable out there," Vilardi said.

Looking ahead, Vilardi joins a trio of additional Kings prospects with Team Canada at training camp for the upcoming 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships.

Vilardi will skate alongside Canada's finest under-20 players, including Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who has skated with both the Kings and the Reign, as well as defenseman Markus Phillips and goaltender Matthew Villalta.

According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, Vilardi and Anderson-Dolan, both returning off of injuries, skated on their own at Canada's practice day on Tuesday and the Kings will be closely monitoring their progress leading up to their possible inclusion on the final roster for the tournament.

Tweet from @TSNBobMcKenzie: Jaret Anderson-Dolan (wrist) and Gabe Vilardi (back) hit the ice for the first time at Team 🇨 camp tonight. Neither of the LAK prospects participated in either of two team practices today but are working individually with coaches now. pic.twitter.com/8MVqFeszH3

When healthy, Vilardi has proven to be one of the most dominant players in major-junior hockey, with 119 points over his last 81 games in the OHL.

He was also tied for the second most assists in the 2017 Memorial Cup, including two helpers in the championship as his team at the time, the Windsor Spitfires, skated to the trophy.

Tweet from @LAKings: ICYMI: The LA Kings signed Gabe Vilardi to a three-year entry level contract 😍Details > https://t.co/XCMO20eQGa pic.twitter.com/DhT8hh7OrL

If fully recovered from injury and back to his form from the past two campaigns, the Kings' standout forward prospects should have a good look at representing his country later this month.

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