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 3, 2018, when the 2018-19 NHL season begins.
We’re taking a look at the best and the brightest in the Los Angeles Kings organization in our sixth annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown. Appearing on the list at #12 is Matt Villalta.
Age: 19 (June 3, 1999)
2017-18 Team: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
2017-18 Statistics: 49 GP, 2.58 GAA, .908 Sv% (Playoffs: 24 GP, 3.30 GAA, .893 Sv%)
Jewels Reader Ranking: 12
Jewels Staff Ranking: 13
Last Year’s Ranking: 21
Predicting future success from a goalie prospect, especially from someone still playing in juniors, seems a little magical at best. There’s a reason why goalies selected early in the draft are a rarity, after all. Since 2010, only six goalies have been selected in the first round; one has emerged as a legitimate NHL starter (Andre Vasilevskiy), while others needed a trade to finally find professional success (Malcolm Subban and our own Jack Campbell). No one really guesses on goalies anymore. Even Carter Hart, a Philadelphia prospect who dominated the WHL, isn’t necessarily seen by all prospect watchers as a sure thing.
While the Kings have occasionally drafted a goalie high — Christopher Gibson as a 2011 second round pick, Jonathan Bernier in the first round in 2006 — they’ve generally taken a more conservative approach to finding future netminders. So the 2017 third round selection of Matt Villalta, a relatively unheralded goaltender at the time, was met with some surprise. His #21 ranking on last year’s Top 25 Under 25 list reflects the uncertainty that comes with all young goaltenders.
Villalta joined the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds as a free agent in 2016, and once he seized the starter’s position, he never looked back. In two years of play, Villalta has lost eight regulation games. Total. That is not a typo. Eight regulation losses in 82 games played. Villalta lost more regulation games in the Memorial Cup (seven) than he did in the entire 2017-18 season (five). That is a level of absolutely bonkers that I can’t quite find words for.
Actual action shot of Villalta so far: pic.twitter.com/BbrHEGTk1G— Soo Greyhounds (@OHLHoundPower) September 24, 2017
The Greyhounds were an unstoppable juggernaut for most of the season, ending the regular season with a record of 55-7-3-3 (the OHL separates out overtime losses and shootout losses). They clinched a playoff spot easily in February. And while a lot of that was driven by high-scoring forwards, Villalta held down the fort in net, backstopping his team to 40 of their 55 wins.
Video of third round pick, goalie Matt Villalta: pic.twitter.com/ARO3NPI3CU— Jon Rosen (@lakingsinsider) June 24, 2017
He’s an athletic goalie — there’s some shades of Jonathan Quick in the way Villalta hurls himself at some last-second desperation saves — and like most young netminders, still needs to grow and mature in his position. But he’s done everything he can — and then some — to prove that he’s deserving of that third-round pick.
WATCH THIS:— Soo Greyhounds (@OHLHoundPower) March 11, 2018
Villalta reaches back and JUST gets a piece of it with the paddle in desperation mode!! | #SOOvsOS pic.twitter.com/CpxCNsOJCA
1st penalty expires, 30s to go on the Frost hook!— Soo Greyhounds (@OHLHoundPower) February 9, 2018
But check out THIS sliding save by Villalta to get back into position. #SOOvsNIAG pic.twitter.com/2oCh8JT5Av
Has Matt Villalta’s record been bolstered by playing on a team that’s seemed unstoppable? Absolutely. But he’s proved himself to be a goalie who can rise to the challenge, elevate his game, and show why he deserves to be where he is. From an undrafted OHL walk-on, to taking his team deep into the race for the Memorial Cup, to signing his first NHL contract, Matt Villalta has come a long way. While he’s already signed his ELC, Villalta still has at least one more season in juniors, so there’s time before he turns pro. For a team that has struggled to build a goalie pipeline over the years, the continued growth of Matt Villalta is a true bright spot.