It’s the time of year where junior and college seasons are winding down, leading to a number of prospects inking their first professional contracts. Here are three such recently-signed players.
Gabe Vilardi – LAK
A projected top-five pick heading in the 2017 draft, Gabriel Vilardi unexpectedly fell into the laps of the LA Kings at number 11 due to some concerns over his foot speed. But given how he’s played thus far since being selected it’s looking like those pre-draft projections were spot on.
Coming into the OHL with a strong pedigree as the second overall pick in the 2015 OHL draft by the Windsor Spitfires, Vilardi put together and excellent rookie season on a deep team to the tune of 17 goals and 21 helpers in 62 regular season contests and was named to the OHL Second All-Rookie Team. However he was one of only a handful of Spits that finished in the minus with a minus-seven. Big things were expected out of Vilardi in his draft year, but it got off to a delayed start thanks to a knee injury that cost him the first few weeks of the year. But when he did return to action he did not disappoint. Despite playing just 49 games Vilardi led the Spitfires in goals (29) and points (61) while finishing tied for second in assists with 32. Windsor made the playoffs but was bounced in the first round, but being that they were the host city of the Memorial Cup, they received automatic entry to the tournament and certainly made the most of it. In four games, Vilardi dished out seven helpers in four games in the tournament, en route to a championship and was named to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team. He’s missed a huge chunk of the 2017-18 campaign with a back injury that he suffered during the summer and, while on the shelf, was dealt to his hometown Kingston Frontenacs on New Year’s Day. Has been a dominant force for them since with 17 goals and 48 points, putting him third on the team in scoring despite having only suited up for 26 games. 36 of his 48 points are primary points and his point-per-game average of 1.85 is second in the OHL.
Vilardi is considered untouchable by the Kings as several teams were after him at the trade deadline, and with good reason. A top-line centre in the making, there is an extremely high likelihood that he’s in a Kings uniform come the fall.
Ty Ronning – NYR
Boasting some NHL bloodlines, Ronning was a seventh-round pick, like his dad Cliff, of the New York Rangers, selecting him 201st overall in the 2016 draft. Ronning the younger is currently competing in his fifth junior campaign with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL and, while he's experienced some ups and downs during his time there, on the whole it's been a successful junior career. The Giants picked Ronning with the 15th overall pick of the Bantam draft and as a 16-year old produced nine goals and 11 assists in 56 games. He finished 11th in the league in scoring among U17 players behind a number of notable names including Mathew Barzal, Nick Merkley and current WHL scoring leader Glenn Gawdin. His second year can only be categorized as a complete bust with injuries limiting him to 24 games in which he registered just two points, a goal and an assist. But he bounced back in a big way in his draft year posting 31 goals and 28 assists to lead the Giants in scoring and put any lasting effects of the injury to bed. His draft+1 season was solid, but he didn't take that next step forward statistically that you would hope to see. In one more game than the prior season, Ronning scored six fewer goals and equaled his assist total, ending with 53 points to again lead the Giants. He signed an amateur try-out at the end of 2016-17 and headed to Hartford of the AHL where he had a short, but impressive stint with a pair of goals and three assists in a dozen games for the Wolf Pack. Currently competing in his fifth major junior season Ronning has absolutely exploded by potting 55 goals, the second-highest mark in the WHL, and has 22 assists leading his squad in both categories. The Giants have missed the playoffs the past three years but thanks in large part to Ronning’s goal scoring prowess they are looking at reversing that trend this year.
Obviously his height is seen as a detriment but he is actually an inch taller than his father who had a long and successful NHL career and anytime you can snag a 55-goal scorer in the seventh round you have to be happy. I’ll be interested to see how he does in his first full professional season next year. With the Rangers in full-on rebuild mode, there’s an opportunity for Ronning to make some waves.
Will Bitten – MTL
The newest Montreal Canadien, along with fellow recent signee Michael Pezzetta, Bitten has had an eventful OHL career wearing three different jerseys during his time in the league. Selected seventh overall in the OHL Priority draft by the Plymouth Whalers, he put together a solid rookie year with 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points, 25 of which were primary points. He finished sixth in the league among U17 players behind the likes of Logan Brown, Jordan Kyrou, and Jakob Chychrun. After one year in Plymouth, the Whalers were sold and moved to Flint and became the now infamous Firebirds. Bitten not only survived, but flourished, in the tire fire that was the 2015-16 Flint Firebirds leading the team in every offensive category with 30 goals, 35 assists and 65 points culminating in the Ottawa native begin drafted by the Habs in the third round of the 2016 draft. Just before the 2016-17 season was set to begin, Bitten was traded to the Hamilton Bulldogs and fit in nicely, becoming one of their go-to offensive players. He finished behind only Matthew Strome on the Bulldogs in scoring posting 23 goals and 34 helpers and establishing a career best with 84% of his points being primary ones. In his fourth season he’s already set a new personal bets with 42 assists and is on pace to surpass his previous career high mark of 65 points, currently sitting with 61 in 59 games and is third on the squad in scoring. The Habs are exactly flush with stellar forward prospects so it’ll be interesting to watch and see what kind of role he is given in Laval come the fall, and what he does with it.
Thanks for reading another installment of The Journey. Stick tap to Elite Prospects and prospects-stats for the number. Give me a follow on Twitter @BradHPhillips. Enjoy your weekend!
Also from The Journey: Prospects Traded at the Deadline