Gabe Vilardi. Image by: Getty Images
Draft-eligible Gabe Vilardi has been a huge factor in making Windsor a team to beat in the year it hosts the Memorial Cup; Kyle Connor is tearing up the AHL.
Vegas is in the game. The Golden Knights announced their first signing this week, inking former Minnesota Wild prospect Reid Duke to a rookie deal. Duke plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings, where Knights assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon used to work, so this is a familiar entity. Duke has nice scoring punch, but whether he makes an NHL impact or not is almost secondary right now: Vegas just feels a little more real. Elsewhere, the post-season has either started or is coming up quick around the world, so let’s take a look at some of the prospects making noise.
Gabe Vilardi, C – Windsor Spitfires (OHL): Vilardi knows the situation his team is in right now. Sure, the Spitfires have clinched a playoff spot and, really, as hosts of the Memorial Cup, they know they’ll get to play for the trophy. But with Erie, London, Owen Sound and the Soo all breaking the 40-win barrier already, the OHL post-season is going to be a bloodbath.
“The Western Conference is crazy, there’s so many great teams,” Vilardi said. “Finishing out this year, it’s huge for us to continue to get better and push for that first spot. We want to go to the Memorial Cup through the front door.”
And Vilardi will be a huge driver. The OHL’s player of the week with nine points in three games, Vilardi is a big center with excellent hockey sense and a powerful ripper of a shot. His skating needs to improve, but scouts aren’t too worried. One noted that he’s already better than Mark Stone at the same age and Vilardi has another NHLer in mind when he looks at self-improvement.
“John Tavares has really developed his skating and I’m doing that through the years,” Vilardi said. “Plus, he’s good in all three zones and has incredible vision with the puck.”
If a team gets a Tavares-like player in Vilardi at the draft, they’d be over the moon, but even to adjust expectations realistically, the Windsor standout projects to be a good one. Vilardi can go into traffic and score goals and no thanks to some major injuries, the Spits have needed him a little more this year.
Vilardi also comes from an interesting path, having eschewed minor midget in favor of attending the Canadian International Hockey Academy near Ottawa. At that school, he had the freedom to skate pretty much as often as he wanted to – and the youngster took advantage of the opportunity.
“Some days I’d be on the ice for four or five hours and they wouldn’t kick me off,” he said. “They let you have fun; it’s perfect.”
Also fun? Winning. And the Spitfires have done a lot of it this season. With Vilardi hot and the playoffs approaching, we’ll get a chance to see just how much winning they can do.
In the Pipeline
Kyle Connor, LW (Winnipeg): The AHL player of the week, Connor has 10 goals and 13 points during an ongoing six-game point streak for the Manitoba Moose. Speedy and skilled, the rookie pro saw a decent amount of time with the Jets earlier, but he’s really hitting his stride with the farm team.
Kale Clague, D (Los Angeles): Recently inked to his entry-level deal by the Kings alongside fellow ‘Dub’ mate Austin Wagner, Clague is a two-way defenseman with mobility. The world junior silver medallist is having a tremendous bounce-back season since the Kings nabbed him in the second round this past summer.
Cal Petersen, G (Buffalo): Notre Dame heads into the Hockey East tournament with a senior goaltender known to steal games. Petersen, who leads the conference in shutouts with five this season, has great size and stays on his feet longer than most goalies – so it’s tough to beat him up top.
2017 Draft Stars
Eeli Tolvanen, LW – Sioux City Musketeers (USHL): Thanks to seven points in his past five games, Tolvanen is at a point-per-game pace with the Musketeers, which is pretty good for the defensively-tough USHL. The Boston College commit is also utilizing his excellent shot with frequency, averaging five shots a game recently.
Neil Shea, RW – Lawrence Academy Spartans (NH HS.): A power forward with a heavy game, Shea put up 34 points in 22 regular season games for the Spartans. His physicality will play better at the next level and the Northeastern commit complements that with smarts and skating ability.
Casey Mittelstadt, C – Eden Prairie Eagles (Minn. HS): The Eagles are the No. 1 seed in Minnesota’s vaunted state high school tournament and a title is the reason Mittelstadt came back from the USHL. Super-skilled and very smart, the Minnesota commit leads the team to beat this year.
Yaroslav Alexeyev, LW – Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): A slippery and skilled offensive player, Alexeyev has seven points in his past five games as Sherbrooke fights for the final playoff spot. At 145 pounds, he certainly has to get bigger, but his instincts with the puck are excellent.
Nic Hague, D – Mississauga Steelheads (OHL): With eight points during a current six-game streak, Hague helped the Steelheads mow down the competition en route to clinching the Central division title for the first time on the weekend. A huge kid with great reach, Hague has scouts seeing nice shutdown potential, as skating mechanics are still a work in progress.
David Kvasnicka, D – Plzen (Cze.): A smaller, mobile blueliner, Kvasnicka is seeing a decent amount of ice time for Plzen as the squad has begun its playoff run in the Extraliga, the nation’s top circuit. Interestingly, Kvasnicka also rates well in the Radegast Index, a Czech stat based off hits, blocked shots and plus-minus.
2018 Draft Star
Vitali Kravtsov, RW – Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL): Traktor’s season is finished thanks to a first-round loss to Barys Astana, but at least Kravtsov made history in the process. The big 17-year-old became the youngster player ever to score in the KHL playoffs when he tallied in Game 1 and was named Best Rookie of the first round for his efforts.