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NHL Draft

Gabriel Vilardi of Windsor likely to be noticed on Memorial Cup stage

Scouts keeping eye on 17-year-old center, ranked fourth on NHL Central Scouting list

by Dave Hogg / Correspondent

WINDSOR, Ontario -- Windsor center Gabriel Vilardi knows he has a special opportunity during the next 10 days. He's doing everything he can to ignore it.

Vilardi, 17, is No. 4 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2017 NHL Draft, and he's the only prospect among the top 35 on the list playing at the Memorial Cup, which began Friday and runs through May 28 at WFCU Centre. It will be his last chance to impress before the draft in Chicago on June 23-24.

The season already has ended for the three players ranked ahead of Vilardi. Brandon center Nolan Patrick, No. 1 on Central Scouting's list, was injured and did not play in a four-game loss to Medicine Hat in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Halifax center Nico Hischier, No. 2 on the list, had seven points (three goals, four assists) in a first-round loss to Rouyn-Noranda in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs.

Center Casey Mittelstadt, No. 3 in the rankings, ended his season with Green Bay in the United States Hockey League.

Vilardi acknowledges he will be in the spotlight, but said he's trying to put aside his NHL future for now.

"I know the draft is coming and that people are going to be watching me, but I can't pay any attention to that," he said. "I'm not going to impress anyone by trying to win games by myself. I need to play my game and find ways to help my team win this tournament. If I play a team game and give us a better chance to win, everything else will work out on its own."

Windsor lost in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs despite Vilardi's team-high six points (two goals, four assists) in seven games. But as the Memorial Cup host, it was guaranteed a spot in the four-team field, along with OHL champion Erie, QMJHL champion Saint John and WHL champion Seattle.

"This is obviously a fantastic opportunity for Gabe, because every NHL team is going to be at this tournament, and every general manager is going to be watching," Windsor coach Rocky Thompson said. "He has a chance to make a big impression, and he has the advantage of not having to do it alone. He plays on a great line on a great team, and that's going to make him look even better."

Because of their early playoff exit, Windsor had 44 days off before opening the tournament against Saint John on Friday. The coaching staff worked the team through three two-week segments, starting with the kind of conditioning drills normally associated with training camp. Windsor then scrimmaged against local amateur teams and focused on special-teams work.

The strategy might not have been enjoyable, but it worked. Windsor got a goal and an assist from center Aaron Luchuk and forward Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs) in a 3-2 win against Saint John in the tournament opener Friday. Luchuk scored the winning goal at 15:12 of the third period.

Defenseman Thomas Chabot (Ottawa Senators) and center Nathan Noel (Chicago Blackhawks) scored for Saint John.

Vilardi was minus-1 with two shots on goal.

"We're still a great hockey team, and we showed everyone else just what we are capable of doing," Vilardi said.

Vilardi showed this season what he's capable of doing. He had 61 points (29 goals, 32 assists) in 49 games. He missed time early in the season because of a knee injury sustained while practicing with Canada for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, and had an appendectomy Nov. 21 that sidelined him for five weeks.

"He's very composed with the puck and uses his vision and playmaking ability to influence the game in all three zones," NHL Central Scouting's Matt Ryan said. "He excels below the dots in the offensive zone where he uses his size and reach to dictate the play and generate scoring opportunities."

He'll have a few more games to showcase those skills to NHL scouts during the Memorial Cup. And that, not walking on stage at United Center, is his focus now.

"This is what you dream about, winning," Vilardi said. "You want to win the Memorial Cup, then you want to win the Stanley Cup. Things didn't go the way we wanted this year, but now we have another chance."

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