There is no denying that the Los Angeles Kings are in an exciting place. In a rebuild, the team has to decide what prospects will get a shot in Los Angeles or carry out their season in the minors. Although in the Calder Trophy conversation, the start of Quinton Byfield’s NHL debut is still up in the air. Byfield is only one of the names in the profound King’s pool. While the majority of the media has, for the most part, written off the Kings, the new reconstruction of the league’s divisions does open up some possibilities for the organization. And it would appear head coach Todd McLellan and team captain Anze Kopitar have not given up that hope. With the fourth playoff spot wide open, the Kings need players to step up in big ways. Here is why Gabriel Vilardi and Andreas Athanasiou can be those players.
Gabriel Vilardi and Andreas Athanasiou are Key
While there are plenty of things that would need to happen for Los Angeles to be competitive enough to compete at that level, secondary scoring is among the most important. For the Kings, this is an issue that has been around the team for years now. Forwards Gabriel Vilardi and Andreas Athanasiou will be looked at to fill in some critical holes in Los Angeles.
Vilardi, who was drafted 11th overall by Los Angeles in 2017, showed a small glimpse of his ability last season. Before the NHL season ended due to the Covid-19 breakout, Vilardi ended the season strong with 7 points in 10 games (3-4-7). The team went 10-2-1 in their last 13 games before the season concluded. They have now begun being an entertaining team to watch. Even with two playoff appearances since 2015-16, it was visually evident that something was wrong. A lack of speed and youth began to parlay into a 4-1 first-round loss to the San Jose Sharks (2015-16) and another first-round sweep to the Vegas Golden Knights in their debut season. In his ten-game stretch last year, Vilardi’s success showed the first glimmer of light in the organization’s prospect pool.
Question Among Injuries
While arguably a possible top-five pick in the NHL’s 2017 entry-level draft, Vilardi fell into the King’s lap at 11th. He never completed an entire OHL season during his three-year span. The closest being his rookie year, playing in 62 out of 68 games. He still grabbed Los Angeles’s attention with his elite skill as well as being a 6’3 200-pound center. The Kings seem to look for down the middle in their top-six forwards (Kopitar and Jeff Carter). Before the 2017 draft, Vilardi only played in 49 games OHL games for the Windsor Spitfires. He managed to gather 61 points (29-32-61) that season. If the Kings thought that this kid could stay healthy, he was an absolute snag in the first round.
It appears that an ongoing back issue has held up Vilardi. Often degenerative back issues are a big red flag. But at such a young age, it would appear that he is on the other side and feeling healthy for the first time in years. Focusing on training over health is a significant advantage, and it is already showing this year in his speed.
The Kings are primarily made up of an ageing core and prospect too young to tell yet if they are NHL ready. At 21 years old, Gabriel Vilardi is still coming into the league as a rookie. That maturity and hungry to prove himself already could be an asset to the team. The number change this year (from No.42 to No.13) might be foreshadowing a fresh start for this young player. An elite player who seemed quickly comfortable wearing an NHL jersey and understands the faster change of pace game could help him and his team through a complicated transition.
Andreas Athanasiou has not been in this league long enough to see how his game will stabilize. Before the 2019-20 season, his number continued to grow into a 30 goal season (30-24-54) until 2018-19. That year, Athanasiou point totals hung around players like Mike Hoffman in 2019-20 (29-30-59) and ex-King Tyler Toffoli (24-20-44), who landed a much larger contract. You don’t have to look too long to figure out why. There have been issues with his defensive ability. Quite often, he would find himself on for more goals against than for. But, at a one-year, 1.2 million dollar contract, Los Angeles believes that it is worth the risk. The Kings have $10,633,038 in cap space still available, and that number is only growing.
The Rise and Fall
Last year was a hard one for Athanasiou. His numbers heavily dropped and his defensive game didn’t improve, eventually being traded to the Edmonton Oilers (11-15-26 in 55 games). On top of that, Athanasiou was entering the offseason as a free agent that followed a career-worst year. But if you go back to years prior, you find a continued growth in production. His first near-full season in the NHL came in 2016-17. Athanasiou had an impressive 18 goals (18-11-29) followed by a slight increase in points in 2017-18 (16-17-33). A one year contract may come across as a win-win for a guy who perhaps had a bad year in production. If he can prove to the league he can be an elite scorer, you could see that contract increase quite a bit. Making it a low risk, high reward situation for the Kings.
There is no doubt that Athanasiou needs to focus on his defensive ability while getting back to his 30 goal self. But he is often skating with Jeff Carter and Blake Lizotte (two responsible players who can dish the puck). Los Angeles looks like they will be, at least for the time being, looking at him to fill a top six. During game one of the 2020-21 season, he showed that he might be able to stay there. His speed is beneficial and sometimes hard to find in an inexpensive goal-scorer. It is asking too much of the top line of Alex Iafallo, Anze Kopitar, and Dustin Brown to carry all the weight (currently rank #28 in the league by ESPN). And with the loss of players like Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, there is a grave lack of secondary scoring. LA Kings fans can hope that Athanasiou helps fill that role.
Long Shot To 2021 Playoffs
The top three teams seem to be a shoo-in to make a playoff spot in this (with the new Division alignment). That leaves an open fight for the fourth spot. Very few are giving Los Angeles that fourth spot, and for a good reason. San Jose was full of injuries last year after being a consistently deep playoff team. On the other hand, Minnesota is a team you can never write off and has at least made the playoffs 7 of the last eight years. The addition of a healthy Calder Trophy candidate Gabriel Vilardi and once 30-goal scorer Andreas Athanasiou only adds to the hope that this rebuild may be shorter than expected.