Montreal Canadiens trade target: Gabriel Vilardi and a Kings ransom

Size, vision, scoring ability — Gabriel Vilardi is proving to be a force down the middle for the Kingston Frontenacs, and should be very enticing to the Canadiens.

After a disappointing 2016-17 season, when an injury to Jonathan Quick derailed the team, the strong start the Los Angeles Kings had this year was an indication that their aging core could still bounce back.

Despite a difficult stretch in December and January, they are still right in the middle of the fight raging for the final two seeds in the Pacific Division, constantly being one point in or out of the playoffs on any given night. Squeaking into the post-season in the last wild-card spot could also be difficult considering the perennial strength of the Central.

The injury to Jeff Carter is proving to be a challenge for the Kings, who sit in the bottom half of the league in goals for. But he is not the only hole in their top six.

For this reason, insiders have linked Los Angeles to reportedly available top forwards with the deadline approaching. Acquiring someone like Max Pacioretty to play next to Anze Kopitar could shape the Western organization back into a Stanley Cup contender from what is already a surprisingly strong group this season.

In a trade like this, there's likely only one major piece Montreal would be interested in, and it's Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles' latest first-round pick.

The player

Number 73 of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs is one of the most dominant players in junior hockey right now. Since coming back from a back strain that kept him away from the ice for the first half of the season, the centre is on a monstrous pace of better than two points per game, placing him at the top of the league in production.

Vilardi was projected to go in the top five in the 2017 NHL Draft by many, but fell all the way to the 11th pick due to concerns over his skating, which are still valid right now. He stands upright and doesn't have the foot speed to compete with some of the top skaters in the league.

But the rest of his skills make him a very covetable prospect, starting with a shot that would likely be one of the better ones in the NHL right now.

He is comfortable with a selection of different releases, can pick his spot, and conjures a lot of power while firing. He is threatening even in what are considered lower-danger areas due to this incredible weapon.

But it's not just the strength. He can discharge very quickly and beat goalies before they can get back in position, as he catches and releases in a fraction of a second, sending the puck flying off his stick.

This ability and his high goal production in the OHL project him as a proficient scorer at the next level.

Vilardi is also not dependent on teammates’ feeds to unleash his shot. He has no trouble creating his own scoring chances, using his soft hands and size to protect the puck and find a lane to the net.

With the same tools, he also becomes a dangerous playmaker that is able to pull off great passes while either fighting off or dancing around opponents. He is agile for his 6'3” frame, and can easily pivot off unsuspecting defenders, coming out of tight scrums with the puck.

He's an overall fantastic stickhandler with more than one move in his repertoire. That, combined with a propensity to remain deceptive with possession, has him fool defenders and come up with plays like these with impressive regularity.

He's actively looking to challenge opponents — to a fault at times. He's not one to be scared of taking on more than one player at a time, especially against weaker teams. And while he sometimes ends up losing the puck for it, it is often surprising how long he can toy with them while guarding possession.

He is capable of reading the opposing pressure very well, enabling him to remain elusive and create separation from defenders, and that even with his skating deficiencies.

But not every play he makes comes from a battle down low. Far from it. He's a quick and accurate passer, and it makes for a great complement to his shooting ability. He keeps opposing defences guessing on what he's going to do next as he's equally threatening when he's looking to offload the puck to a teammate or put it on net.

His developed awareness also serves him on the defensive side of the ice, allowing him to identify and cut passing lanes, anticipating plays before they are attempted.

Vilardi could still stand to use his stick more, especially in one-on-one battles to smother opponents and force them away from dangerous areas. It would limit options for opposing forwards, preventing them from cutting and accelerating away where he can't always easily follow them.

That being said, with his size, he has some advantages over others when it comes to his play away from the puck. He is already used quite extensively in defensive missions for Kingston, which is often a telling sign of a responsible player in the making.

Overall, Vilardi could be a great fit down the middle for any team at the NHL level with the abilities he showcases every night, especially the way he exhibits excellent puck-distribution skills.

The top league is getting faster every year, but betting on a smart and productive player is rarely a wrong choice. Plus, an 18-year-old’s skills are rarely set in stone. With the appropriate work, Vilardi could work a few kinks out of his skating and become easily capable of following the faster pace of professional hockey. Top players have done it successfully in the past.

The Kings’ situation

Los Angeles' prospect pool isn't overflowing like some other teams’. On the contrary, after years of contending for a Cup and making big trades like the one for Milan Lucic or Carter, they are just beginning to build it back up.

With that in mind, acquiring someone like Vilardi might not be easy for Montreal, even if the player would fit their needs.

But those big trades have also shown that the Kings are not afraid to go all-in when they see the opportunity. If you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. The 2011-12 edition of the team was the perfect example of this, getting in as the eighth seed and going all the way to a Cup championship.

Kopitar is not getting younger and is signed forever. But he is a number-one centre of a type an organization only finds once every few decades, able to carry a team all the way.

Drew Doughty is one of the best defencemen in the league and his contract is up the year after next. They have to convince him to stay, and he’s already openly stated that he wants to play for a contender.

“My first love will always be L.A.,” he said. “It’s one of the best organizations in all of sports, not just hockey. It’s unbelievable. They treat us first-class, and it’s a good place to play. Living in Los Angeles, you can’t beat it. I’d love to re-sign in L.A. But if our team isn’t going in the right direction ... I want to win Cups. I don’t give a s*** where I play. I just want to win Cups, and that’s the bottom line.” - Drew Doughty, The Hockey News

It could be years before Los Angeles is able to rely on a core that would rival the one they have now. Winning while it's still possible is a direction the organization should head in, especially when it's backstopped by Quick, and faces the impending unrestricted free agent status of Doughty.

The package

That being said, I don't see Montreal getting Vilardi, a first- and second-round pick, and a young roster player in exchange for providing scoring help to the Kings in the form of Pacioretty. Both the cost and the potential of Vilardi are too high for such a deal to be accepted.

A straight up one-for-one deal would also likely upset a good part of both fanbases, as Montreal would come out of it with only one of the elements they are reportedly asking for, and Los Angeles would give up multiple years of a young asset for a two-year rental.

So, here's a crazier trade proposal:

What comes with being a contender is almost always entering into some bad contract agreements. For this reason, Montreal's cap space becomes a valuable asset to negotiate with teams stuck in that situation. If the Habs accept the idea of a longer rebuild and are willing to merchandise their cap credit, they could help the Kings stay competitive and ease their future financial situation.

Los Angeles has several restricted free agents to re-sign in 2019-20, those contracts starting at the same time as Doughty's contract extension. Unless the cap continues to climb significantly, their overpayments of veterans like Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik could realistically make for hard negotiations.

Brown has stepped up this season and remains a useful player for them, but the same can't be said for Gaborik, who is a perpetually injured shadow of his former self. The soon-to-be 36-year-old is paid $4.875 million on average for the next three years. Teams would probably not even be interested in him if he was made available for free on the market. He's a good example of a player providing negative value.

The Canadiens could take on his contract, freeing some cap space for the Kings that would no longer be tied to someone that is not contributing to their success.

It would also open the possibility of Los Angeles re-signing Pacioretty once his current deal expires.

The price for Montreal to take on such a ridiculous contract would have to be quite high. The Kings’ first-round pick would have to be on the table, on top of a package that includes either a second and another prospect, or a young roster player with potential, like Michael Amadio.

This is where both teams could find middle ground, giving a boost to the Kings in their contending plans, and helping the Canadiens rebuild their roster with Gabriel Vilardi as a centrepiece.

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