EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although the Los Angeles Kings have been able to ride the superstar-caliber goaltending provided by Jonathan Quick, at least until this season when played in just 17 games due to injury, they have had trouble in recent years in building depth in goal to support their star netminder.
Indeed, since Quick was selected by the Kings in the third round (72nd overall) in the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft, the Kings have drafted seven goalies through the 2016 NHL Draft.
Also since Quick was drafted, the Kings had a bunch of netminders who were, in a word, forgettable. But they also drafted the likes of Jonathan Bernier and they signed Martin Jones as a free agent. But whether it was having to trade a goalie who had the potential to be a number one goalie elsewhere (Bernier, Jones), losing a netminder to waivers (Jean-Francois Berube), or having a goaltender prospect allegedly assault his girlfriend, resulting in felony domestic violence charges (Patrik Bartosak), the Kings have not been able to replenish the goaltending in their system, leaving the cupboard bare, in terms of homegrown prospects.
In case you’re wondering, goaltender Alec Dillon, who was selected by the Kings in the fifth round (150th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft, missed the entire 2016-17 season with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League due to a serious hip injury. That followed him playing in just seven games in 2015-16 after recovering from surgery on both hips.
Dillion’s huge setback has only deepened the hole that is otherwise known as the Kings goaltender depth. As quick fixes, the Kings acquired Peter Budaj, Jack Campbell and Jeff Zatkoff. But without young goaltending prospects in their system, those were just bandages covering up a rather glaring problem.
But now, perhaps that problem is starting to be addressed. Indeed, during the second day of the 2017 NHL Draft, the Kings selected Matthew Villalta—a goaltender—in the third round (72nd overall).
“There were three goaltenders that we went in with a plan to have a chance to draft—they were in spots in our list where we thought they’d come into play,” Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yanetti said during an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty. “They were the top three, in terms of value in their positioning. That doesn’t mean they were the top three goalies on our list. Value is just as important as level of play. If you can get the best goalie in the draft with your highest pick, or get the third-best goalie with your lowest pick, there’s value that way. I’m not saying that to give away any kind of positioning [on their draft list].”
“Matt was a guy we coveted,” Yanetti added. “He was a guy were we hoping to come out of the draft with. There were three guys we looked at in that vein, and there was a fourth guy one tier down, so we had four realistic possibilities to take a goalie and we got one of the ones we coveted the most.”
Even with the acute lack of depth in goal throughout their system, Yanetti said that was not the reason Villalta was selected.
“We weren’t going to draft a goaltender just to draft a goaltender,” he emphasized. “At pick 72, he was the next player on our list. He happened to be a goalie. We targeted him in that area, and he wouldn’t have [been available] for much longer, I can tell you that.”
Villalta indicated that he was surprised to be selected in the third round.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect to go that high,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to the draft. I was expecting to be a later round pick—in the seventh round. But yeah, I was really excited about it. L.A. is a great organization to be a part of, and I’m really looking forward to the future.”
“I thought I was going to get picked, maybe, in the seventh round, because my ranking in North America was 16th [among goaltenders],” he added. “My goalie partner this year, Joseph Raaymakers—last year was his draft year and he was ranked sixth, but he didn’t get drafted. So I wasn’t really expecting too much from the draft, but I was lucky enough to go in the third round. I’m pretty happy.”
Yanetti said that Villalta came out of nowhere last season.
“He came from relative obscurity,” he noted. “He wasn’t one of those players who was touted since he was twelve years old. He was a guy who, each year, improved and improved and improved. Even this year, when he made the team, which wasn’t a foregone conclusion in the beginning of the year, there was a chance he was going to be playing Tier 2. But he goes in and wins a spot on the team. He was going to backup a veteran, and had no chance to play with a such a strong veteran there. But what does he do? He goes on a 22-3 run. I don’t find that kind of linear progression, that kind of rise from obscurity, to winning 20 games in a row, almost, incidental or happenstance.”
“He won the starting job in Sault Ste. Marie this year,” he added. “He started as the backup and won the starting job. But in the playoffs, they went back to the veteran. He’s a really good goalie. He was in the New York Rangers camp last year. They went back to the veteran after two playoff games.”
Villalta indicated that he just made the most of an opportunity.
“Coming into the season, my goal was just to work as hard as I could in practice and in the gym, and just pushing myself to get better every day,” said the 18-year-old, 6-3, 165-pound native of Kingston, Ontario. “I was in the gym every day. I was pushing myself, working out with [former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman] Colton White, who signed with the New Jersey Devils. He taught me a lot.”
“As we went down the stretch later in the season, [Raaymakers] struggled s little bit,” added Villalta. “When the opportunity came, I just tried to jump on it, run with it as far as I could, and play to the best of my ability.”
In 33 regular season games this season, Villalta earned a 25-3-0 record, with a 2.41 goals against average, a .918 save percentage and one shutout.
“I owe a lot to my teammates,” he said. “The guys work hard in front of me, every game, in our defensive zone and in the offensive zone.”
As reported earlier, Villalta shined in the regular season, earning the top spot for the Greyhounds in the playoffs. But after winning his first game, he struggled in the second one, and was replaced by Raaymakers for the rest of the post-season, as Yanetti alluded to earlier.
“I was pretty fortunate to start the first two games,” said Villalta. “My playoff run didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but that’s OK. Next year, I’ll be able to bounce back and have a pretty good run.”
Villalta described himself as a goalie who relies on his technique.
“I try and play really simple,” he said. “I like to play a technical game. I think I’m positionally strong and I skate well—my skating and edge work are positives in my game. I think I read plays pretty well.”
“I’m also 6-3, and I think I use my size pretty well, although I still have to grow into my body, [adding strength],” he added. “That’s one of the biggest improvements I need to make over the summer.”
Yanetti pointed to Villalta’s attitude as a strength.
“He has the right demeanor,” Yanetti noted. “He has the right confidence, the right kind of forgetfulness, in terms of when something doesn’t go his way.”
“Goaltenders with short memories—they always say that’s important,” Yanetti added. “He checks a lot of goaltending boxes, in terms of physical attributes, and more importantly, the mental attributes.”
“This is a kid whose hobby is flying—he’s getting his pilot license. If you’re landing a plane, you probably have the right goaltending demeanor. I would think the calmness [lack of nerves] needed to do those two tasks—I would think that you’d find a lot of overlap.”
Next season, Villalta is expected to compete for the starting netminder job with the Greyhounds.
“It’s going to be a battle between me and Raaymakers,” he said. “It’s going to be his fourth year in the league. He’s going to want to be the starter, too, so he’s going to work really hard over the summer. I’m going to make sure that I’m working as hard as I can to be successful this coming season. I’m looking forward to it.”
“It’s going to be a good competition, fighting for that number one job,” he added. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I’m just going to show up to camp and show everyone that I can be the starter.”
Hard work and continual improvement will be needed for him to grab and hold onto the starting job with the Greyhounds next season. But now, Villalta has an advantage: working with Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford and Dusty Imoo, who handles goaltender development for the Kings.
“That means a lot,” said Villalta. “To have those guys by my side, teaching me, it’s going to be a big help. They’re going to teach me a lot over the next few years. I’m going to work as hard as I can, take everything in. I’m going to listen to them and try to add everything they tell me to my game.”
“Right now, they’re just adding stuff to my tool box,” added Villalta. “Reading plays and tracking pucks. That’s the biggest things we’ve worked on in practice, like tracking pucks into our bodies with our eyes, all the way in. We’ve also worked on assessing the play, so like when you make a push, you want to read the play after you make a stop—look back and know which player is where.”
“We’ve talked about practicing really hard every day. When you come to the rink, be ready to go onto the ice, work as hard as you can, practice really deliberately and with a purpose. I’m trying to do those things every day.”
LEAD PNOTO: Los Angeles Kings third round (72nd overall) pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, goaltender Matthew Villalta, shown here during the Kings 2017 Development Camp on June 28, 2017, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterone Photography.
The original version of this story indicated that Villalta struggled in both of the playoff games he played in this season. In fact, he won his first game and played well in it, but struggled in the second game. The story has been edited to reflect this. Frozen Royalty regrets the error.
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