Our annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown has begun! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings (50%) and the staff rankings (50%) to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 5, 2017, when the 2017-18 NHL season begins.
We’re taking a look at the best and the brightest in the Los Angeles Kings organization in our fifth annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown. We end the first week with our first goalie, at #21: Matt Villalta.
I wanted to spend more time on describing Matt Villalta’s past and future without considering where he was drafted. Fortuntately, Google succinctly summed up the Draft Day story of Matt Villalta by giving me two headlines from the Sault Star, published three days apart.
2016-17 Team: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 33 GP, 25-3-0, 2.41 GAA, .918 SV%
Jewels Reader Ranking: 21
Jewels Staff Ranking: 19
So for a third-round pick, #21 might seem low on our countdown, and for someone who wasn’t necessarily expecting to be drafted, #21 might seem high. So maybe we found ourselves in exactly the right place. Just like Matt Villalta did!
After all, if you’re playing in the (deep breath) ETAMMHL, then the ETAHL, for the Greater Kingston Jr. Frontenacs midget team... you might not be expecting an NHL shot. But now Villalta isn’t just an NHL draft pick, he’s the highest goaltender selection by his team since 2011, and he’s on a team with a reputation for developing goaltenders. For the first time in a few years, though, the Kings have a fairly solid foundation, with Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell fighting for the backup job and Cal Petersen and Jeff Zatkoff more than capable of handling Ontario. So where does that leave Villalta?
In Sault Ste. Marie. Which is perfect. That’s where Villalta walked on as a free agent invite to join the Greyhounds of the OHL, and that’s where he was a seldom-used backup to Joseph Raaymakers until he started outplaying him, and that’s where he won 25 games and lost just three during the regular season, and that’s where he posted a .918 save percentage despite having zero experience at the OHL level. Raaymakers took the net back during the playoffs after Villalta had a rough Game 2, but as Villalta said after the 2017 NHL Draft, he could “never have imagined this happening.”
Congrats to @CTCreaseCanada who gets a major win in his first year with Soo. He's put in a lot of time/effort with Villalta.— Gregory Balloch (@GregBalloch) June 24, 2017
Villalta is a project, but he’s been a project before, and aren’t all goalies projects? Another year in the OHL should give us a much better idea of what Villalta brings to the table, and a regular schedule of starts will give him a chance to work on his shortcomings. What are those shortcomings? As you might expect for a 6’2” goalie who weighs just 165 pounds, the strength and the ability to “make himself big” aren’t quite there yet, according to OHL Writers. Having said that, he is apparently both fairly athletic and fairly calm... a good combination for a young goaltender.
Asking for more description on a junior hockey goaltender is just getting greedy, so I’m gonna leave it at this: Matt Villalta is an intriguing goaltender, who will look to build on a surprising breakout to become a key piece in the Kings’ pipeline. And if you want a good omen? The Kings took another goalie with the 72nd overall pick 12 years ago, a couple rounds ahead of where he was projected to go, and he won a couple Stanley Cups.