Kings look at top pick and see a win­ner

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - HE­LENE EL­LIOTT

Scout­ing re­ports on Wind­sor Spit­fires cen­ter Gabe Vi­lardi ques­tioned his skat­ing abil­ity, and more than a few NHL teams ap­par­ently took that as gospel. Although Vi­lardi was the fourth-rated North American skater in Central Scout­ing’s fi­nal draft rank­ings, the 17-year-old from Kingston, Canada, wasn’t among the first 10 players selected Friday in Chicago.

The Kings didn’t care about his per­ceived de­fi­cien­cies. Skat­ing can be im­proved. The heart and skills their scouts saw while he led Wind­sor to the Me­mo­rial Cup — the pin­na­cle of ju­nior hockey — can’t be taught.

The Kings claimed Vi­lardi with the 11th se­lec­tion. They were choos­ing early for the first time since their two Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­onships pushed them back in the se­lec­tion or­der and failed trades left them with­out first-round picks. The 6-foot-3, 203-pound cen­ter is sched­uled to visit Cal­i­for­nia for the first time next week to par­tic­i­pate in the Kings’ de­vel­op­ment camp at El Segundo.

“They’ve got a lot of win­ners on that team, and I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to meet­ing some of those guys and hope­fully learn­ing from them and take some of their stuff and ap­ply it to my own game,” said Vi­lardi, who said he ad­mires the smarts and strength on the puck of Kings cen­ter Anze Ko­pi­tar, the team’s No. 11 draft pick in 2005. “I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to it. L.A.’s a great

or­ga­ni­za­tion and I’m happy to be join­ing it.”

It’s a cliche for team ex­ec­u­tives to ex­press sur­prise that such-and-such a player was avail­able when their turn came up, but the Kings had rea­son to be de­lighted the first round didn’t go ac­cord­ing to Central Scout­ing’s form and Vi­lardi was avail­able.

The rank­ings went askew im­me­di­ately, when Swiss-born cen­ter Nico His­chier, ranked No. 2, was cho­sen No. 1 by the New Jersey Devils, leav­ing top-ranked cen­ter Nolan Pa­trick to be cho­sen sec­ond by the Philadel­phia Fly­ers. That con­tin­ued when de­fense­man Miro Heiska­nen, ranked fourth among Euro­pean skaters, was cho­sen No. 3 by Dal­las. The first American-born player drafted was Casey Mit­tel­stadt of Ed­ina (Minn.) High School, cho­sen eighth by the Buf­falo Sabres.

“It feels un­be­liev­able. I was a long time speech­less and I can’t be­lieve it,” said His­chier, who scored 38 goals and 86 points in 57 games with Hal­i­fax of the Que­bec Ma­jor Ju­nior Hockey League on the way to be­com­ing the first Swiss player cho­sen first in the NHL draft.

The longer Vi­lardi’s name stayed on the board the hap­pier the Kings were. He had 29 goals and 61 points in 49 reg­u­lar-sea­son games but im­pressed them with his seven as­sists in Wind­sor’s four-game vic­tory over Erie in the Me­mo­rial Cup fi­nal. Wind­sor’s gen­eral man­ager is for­mer Kings for­ward War­ren Ry­chel.

“We found that on the big­gest stage, he took it to an­other level,” Kings as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager Michael Futa said of Vi­lardi. “We were look­ing to up­grade our skill, and it’s a pack­age of a big kid with just in­cred­i­ble skill set and he’s a win­ner. Our guys have him as an av­er­age-plus skater. It’s not a kid that’s a blazer, but this is a kid that has never had any prob­lem get­ting around the ice at any level he’s been at…. He’s a cham­pion.”

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The Ducks didn’t have a first-round pick but did well Friday, any­way, be­cause they agreed on a three-year, $9.45mil­lion con­tract with winger Pa­trick Eaves. The Ducks ac­quired him from Dal­las for a con­di­tional draft pick, which be­came a first-rounder when they ad­vanced to the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal, and he was a key con­trib­u­tor with 11 goals in 20 reg­u­lar sea­son games. He added two goals in seven play­off games be­fore he suf­fered a high an­kle sprain and bone bruise in the sec­ond round against Ed­mon­ton.

Eaves could have tested the free-agent market but he said he “wanted to be a part of ev­ery­thing that they’re do­ing” in Ana­heim. His con­tract in­cludes a no-move clause in each sea­son. “Being in that locker room is some­thing special. I no­ticed that on Day One,” said Eaves, who con­sid­ered the day dou­bly special be­cause it was his par­ents’ 38th an­niver­sary. “I’ve played with great players, great peo­ple.… There was some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Vi­lardi has ar­ranged to work with a skat­ing coach and a trainer this sum­mer in or­der to bring his physique and his game to the NHL level. Vi­lardi, who will turn 18 in Au­gust, said his goal is to make the Kings’ ros­ter in Septem­ber. “I know I have a big sum­mer ahead of me and I’m go­ing to work real hard and work hard at train­ing camp,” he said.

That’s a start. “We’re look­ing for a bunch of dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties to add of­fen­sive skill,” Futa said, “and clearly we feel we’ve made a huge step in that di­rec­tion to­day.”

Claus An­der­sen Getty Images

GABE VI­LARDI, the Kings’ first draft choice, cel­e­brates a goal dur­ing a ju­nior hockey play­off game.

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