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From a California beach to frosty Winnipeg, new Jets forward Gabe Vilardi cool with Canada

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Gabe Vilardi doesn’t sound like a guy who’s worried about long, cold winters or about trading his home on the beach in L.A. for one in Winnipeg.

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One of the newest members of the Jets knows he’s heading north for one thing and one thing only.

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“Living at the beach is pretty cool,” Vilardi said on a media Zoom call on Wednesday. “But, at the end of the day, I’m a hockey player. It’s just business. I’m going to play hockey.”

How the 23-year-old plays and how long he stays in Winnipeg will determine how easily Jets fans forget about Pierre-Luc Dubois, the power centre sent L.A.’s way in a trade that also brought forwards Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari to the Jets.

It has the potential to be a solid, lasting return for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, but it hinges on the continued development of Vilardi.

It hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for the kid from Kingston.

Being drafted 11th overall, as he was in 2017, comes with the weight of expectations.

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On his way to becoming a 6-foot-3, 215-pound, shoot-first centre/winger who just broke out with a 23-goal season, Vilardi faced his share of setbacks and challenges.

Back injuries in junior and other injuries as a pro have no doubt slowed his progress.

It sounds like a hard-ass coach in L.A.’s Todd McLellan got him through another challenge, one most talented prospects deal with: How to play at the “other” end of the rink.

“Todd was very hard on me, my defensive game, the first few years of my pro career,” Vilardi said. “Last year, I turned that corner and he relied on me a bit more in the defensive end. Earlier in my career when I was at centre more, Todd didn’t really trust me as much in the D-zone. My game has matured since then.

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“A major thing with Todd that he harped with me was that you can be effective even when you’re not scoring goals or producing offensively.”

That’s potentially sweet music to the ears of Jets head coach Rick Bowness.

Getting this team to buy in and play clamp-down defence has been the hurdle that has tripped up previous coaches here.

It sounds like in Vilardi’s case some of that unpleasant work has been done.

Whether or not Bowness is ready to trust him down the middle remains to be seen.

“I’m not too sure where they’re going to have me slated, if it’s wing or centre,” he said. “I played a bit of both last year. Played in the playoffs at centre. That’s another good thing that I got from my time in L.A. They had a bunch of centres and they had centre prospects, so they moved me to the wing and I learned to play both. Wherever they want me, I’ll play.

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“Hopefully I can help the Winnipeg Jets get better.”

The Kings, like the Jets, lost their first-round playoff series in five games, falling to Edmonton.

Vilardi, like Dubois, scored a pair of goals and added two assists in the series.

He had heard rumblings he could be on the move this week, but tried not to pay attention, saying he’s not on social media.

“Well, you can’t not think about it,” he said. “So it’s kind of weird, but you just don’t dwell on anything. Don’t be mad or sad or anything. It’s just part of the business at the end of the day. You go where you’re wanted. They got Dubois. He’s obviously a really good player. We go the other way.”

Having two teammates join him in Winnipeg should help the transition.

Vilardi offered a quick scouting report on Iafallo, the 29-year-old vet, and Kupari, the 23-year-old Finn who was L.A.’s first-round pick in 2018.

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“Both really good guys off the ice, goes without saying,” Vilardi said. “Alex, he does everything. He’s very good defensively. Very trustworthy guy. Sneaky skill. He does everything really well. And then Ras is just a very speedy guy. Lots of skill. That raw speed. He plays very hard, too.”

Other than having played junior in Windsor with defenceman Logan Stanley, Vilardi doesn’t have any connections with his new teammates.

Connecting with hockey-mad fans again, he figures will be easy.

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“I’d be lying not to say, but in L.A., they’re not big hockey fans out there,” he said. “Obviously, they have the Kings fans that come to the games and are loyal. But it’s different being in Canada. You do miss it. It’s always cool when you play in Canada on the road. I’m really excited to be back in Canada.”

That’s half the battle.

As for the other half, his better one, we’ll see.

“My girlfriend is from So-Cal, so I’m not sure how excited she is,” Vilardi said. “But she’s going to find out soon.”

Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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