‘I want to be there’: New Jet Vilardi looks forward to playing in Winnipeg

One of the key players in Tuesday’s blockbuster trade that sent Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings says he’s excited about coming to Winnipeg.

Forward Gabriel Vilardi, 23, told media Wednesday that he wants to continue to improve and grow his game, and is looking forward to the opportunity to show Jets fans what he can bring to the team.

“I think there’s a lot I can do,” he said. “The Jets traded for me, so obviously they want me. I want to be there. I’m excited.”

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The Kingston, Ont., native was drafted 11th overall by the Kings in 2017. Although back problems sidelined him early in his career, Vilardi made his NHL debut in February of 2020, setting a league record by scoring his first career goal within six seconds of his first-ever NHL shift.

He said Wednesday that he feels his health issues are in the rearview.

“Being healthy, obviously that always helps. You ask any professional athlete — you don’t want to be injured, it sucks when you’re not playing, and especially I dealt with some stuff really early,” Vilardi said.

“I feel like I’m just over that hump. You always want to be healthy and always want to be there to play and improve and help your team. I’m happy I’ve been fairly healthy for the last two seasons.”

Los Angeles Kings center Gabriel Vilardi (13) fist-bumps Anze Kopitar (11) after scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars during the second period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

Vilardi will be joined in Winnipeg by former Kings teammates Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari — both of whom he praised for their on-ice skill and off-ice qualities as well.

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Vilardi will find a few familiar faces on his new team. Vilardi represented Canada at the 2021 World Championship, winning a gold medal on a team that also included the Jets’ Cole Perfetti, then a member of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.

He also spent time in junior with Jets defenceman Logan Stanley.

Vilardi said he intends to spend the rest of his summer at home in Kingston with friends and family before heading west to Winnipeg for the new season, and he’s thankful for the opportunity to be playing closer to home in a Canadian market.

“I’m really excited to be back in Canada,” he said. “In L.A. they’re not big hockey fans there, obviously. They have the Kings fans that come to the games there that are loyal … but it’s different being in Canada, and yeah, you do miss it.

“It’s always cool when you do play in Canada on the road, and now I’m going to be playing in Canada all the time.

“My girlfriend’s from (southern California) so I’m not sure how excited she is, but she’s going to find out soon.”

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