Gabriel Vilardi stopped short of saying Blake Lizotte tried to injure him on the play that sprained Vilardi’s MCL in October, but he doesn’t see it as a freak accident. On Wednesday in Winnipeg, Vilardi referenced the two players’ time as teammates with the Los Angeles Kings, calling Lizotte’s hit a “stupid” play.
Vilardi and Lizotte were teammates for four years and played on the same line for parts of last season in Los Angeles. Vilardi didn’t hold back in his criticism of Lizotte’s recklessness.
“I’ve played with (Lizotte) a lot. He’s done a lot of little things like that. It’s stuff that you guys say, ‘It was an awkward fall.’ It’s not an awkward fall. It’s someone pushing your feet out from the back, my knee gets caught under me and then he tackles me. It’s that simple.”
The hit took place in Vilardi’s third game for Winnipeg, derailing the start of his Jets career; this summer, he was the centerpiece of an offseason blockbuster trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois.
He could return to Winnipeg’s lineup Thursday against Edmonton — six weeks and three days since the injury — but says the consequences could have been much worse.
“I was pretty close to being gone for the rest of the season, so it’s frustrating to look at stuff like that and think about it,” Vilardi said. “Obviously, I don’t think his intent was to hurt me, but you make plays like that, it’s a stupid play — and it’s frustrating to think that guy sits in the box for two minutes and then I have to deal with what I’ve dealt with for the past month and a half.”
Vilardi called his recovery process a “mental grind.” He referenced the discomfort of skating with a knee brace, saying it’s not something he’s been able to get used to during his knee rehabilitation.
A major source of his frustration, aside from the hit itself, is feeling left out of his new team. The Jets are 12-7-2 after 20 games this season; Vilardi has played in only three of those games, finishing the first two.
“Obviously, everyone does their best to make you feel like you’re part of the team,” he said. “And you do feel like you’re part of the team, but the new guy, it would have been nice to come in and get familiar and play and get comfortable, as opposed to not playing hockey. These guys are 20 games in and I really haven’t done much yet. … It’s tougher mentally to be at home when the team’s on the road and you’re like, ‘What am I going to do here for the next five days?’”
At the time of his injury, Vilardi was skating on Winnipeg’s top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. The trio had started to develop chemistry in the preseason, connecting on a highlight-reel power-play goal. Vilardi skated with Winnipeg’s fourth line Wednesday.
It’s unclear where he will slot in or how soon he will be able to return to form.
“We are hoping that he plays (Thursday),” Jets coach Rick Bowness said. “Then we’re going to have to be a little patient with him. He’s missed a lot of time. The game has ramped up a lot from when he was playing in early October, the speed of the game, everyone is at the top of their game now. So we’re going to have to be patient with him and work him in slowly — if he can play.”
Vilardi says he’s not expecting to return to game action a quarter of the way into the season and dominate. He’s just happy to be close to playing. He also shared that Lizotte reached out to him but chose to keep the details of their conversation between the two players.
In time, it’s expected that Vilardi will return to the top line and the first power-play unit. The Jets’ power play struggled badly Tuesday night, failing to convert on 1:52 of five-on-three time, and is ranked 21st.
Vilardi hopes to help on that front, in due time. For now, he’s still angry with Lizotte’s play, frustrated by his injury and upset to have missed so much of his first season with his new team.
“It’s taken me six weeks and I’m still dealing with some stuff that I’ll have to deal with for the rest of the year,” Vilardi said.
(Photo of Vilardi, left: Derek Leung / Getty Images)