Our seventh 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 and the staff rankings to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 2, 2019, when the 2019-20 NHL season begins.
These rankings are a fickle thing. Last year, Matt Villalta was ranked 12th and now the Soo Greyhounds goaltender slides to number 22.
Maybe it’s because the team has so many new, exciting prospects, or because it can be difficult to predict the career trajectories of netminders. Possibly, you glanced at his stats and were startled to see a consistent slide in his Goals Against Average and Save Percentage each year since he was drafted.
What is perhaps more notable about his stats is the steady increase in games played season after season. The Greyhounds have relied on him heavily. He appeared in 51 of 68 regular-season games for a team that finished third in the Western Conference of the OHL. That’s a lot of reps for any goalie. Hopefully, it serves his development as he had ample opportunity to refine his game.
Villalta struggled in the second round of the playoffs this year with the lowlight of the year coming in Game 2 of the series. Villalta surrendered seven goals on 21 shots as Soo went on to lose 10-1 to the Saginaw Spirit. Thankfully, he bounced back with a 25-save shutout in Game 4. Saginaw would win the series in six games and would come just one win shy of going to the OHL Finals.
Can you blame the goaltender for the Greyhounds shortcomings? Probably not; the Soo only had three 19-year-olds in the lineup for the playoffs (including Villalta). They were a young team going up against a very formidable team.
The question this year is where does he play?
There is a potential battle in Ontario to play behind Cal Petersen, whether it’s Villalta, Cole Kehler, or a free agent signing. Villalta could return to the OHL as a 20-year-old, but it seems he has already proven himself at the Junior level.
The voters were kind of spread out across the rankings but were heaviest in the late teens, early 20s.