American Hockey League

Villalta progressing as pro puck-stopper

He began his first American Hockey League season glued to the bench, but ended it as his team’s No. 1 goaltender.

The ups and downs of life as a professional surely haven’t been lost on former Soo Greyhounds star Matt Villalta.

“I stepped into a backup role again,” said Villalta, who recalled the early days of his Hounds career when he played behind No. 1 goalie Joseph Raaymakers. “But that’s typical for a young goalie coming in as pro.”

As a member of the AHL’s Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings top farm club located in Ontario, Calif., the 20-year-old sat and watched 16 consecutive games to open the 2019-2020 season.

Villalta finally saw some action on Oct. 12, 2019, coming on in relief of starter Cal Petersen in the third period of an eventual 8-2 loss to the Tucson Roadrunners.

No surprise, the Godfrey, Ont., native wasn’t sharp, surrendering three goals on 11 shots.

However, that became the latchkey to his growth and development. Villalta was sent to the ECHL’s (formerly East Coast Hockey League) Fort Wayne Komets to get some playing time.

Once he returned, the six-foot-four, 203-pounder played in another 21 AHL games, earning the starting position by the time the season was suspended on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 22 contests, Villalta finished with a 10-6-2-0 (wins, losses, overtime losses, shootout losses) record, along with a 3.27 goals against average and a .899 saves percentage.

“Over those 22 games, I really improved,” said Villalta, who spent three seasons with the Hounds and was drafted by Los Angeles in the third round (No. 72 overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. “I’d say I progressed well.”

After signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Kings in April of 2018, Villalta was one of three netminders invited to Team Canada’s 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship selection camp.

“I got used to the speed of everything and the traffic in front of the net,” he said of his AHL baptism. “I felt more and more comfortable each time I was in the net. It was great.”

Saying he had a “pretty-good run there,” Villalta also spoke of how it was difficult to see the season halted in mid-March.

Considered an elite free agent find for the Hounds, Villalta also talked about how the Reign players and coaches went out of their way to help him.

Noting how difficult it is for a young netminder to enter the AHL, he talked about how the Reign organization “made things real easy for me.”

Ontario shares a practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., with the Kings, giving young players a chance to watch NHLers on a regular basis.

He kept his eye on Kings star Jonathan Quick and, until he was dealt to Toronto on Feb. 5, former Greyhound Jack Campbell.

“I picked up a lot of knowledge from watching those guys,” said Villalta, who got to know Campbell on a personal basis. “Seeing how they play goal at the pro level translated to my game. The biggest thing for me was to go out and play, have fun and not overthink things.”

Arriving in California to train there last summer, Villalta said Campbell invited him over to have dinner and hang out on a number of occasions.

They talked about their time in the Sault and the billets they lived with.

Villalta called the 28-year-old, Port Huron, Mich., native “an awesome guy and one of my role models. I love watching Jack play and he’s one of the guys I try to be like.”

Campbell’s departure in early February led to the Kings bringing Petersen up, setting the table for Villalta to grab the starter’s role in Ontario.

Determined to make the most out of every first-year experience in the pros, Villalta said he tried to find ways to develop while backing up Petersen early in the season.

“I treated every practice like a game, just so I’d be sharp for whenever I got tossed into the net,” he added. “Warming up, getting my eyes warmed up and making sure my body was ready to go, all of those things were done to stay ready.”

The time he spent in Fort Wayne, with eight starts over a three-week period, was invaluable.

The Kings “were taking their time with me, wanting me to get my feet wet in pro hockey and get some experience under my belt,” he said.

Villalta posted a 3.85 g.a.a. and a saves percentage of .864 with the Komets.

Going to the ECHL to figure things out was “a great experience,” Villalta added. “It was awesome for me to go there and get ready for whenever I’d get called up again.”

While the obvious goal is to one day become an NHLer, Villalta spoke of how a goaltending pecking order is in place in the Kings organization, how he has much to learn, and the importance of the patience he’s approaching his career with.

“I’m just trying to learn every day,” he said. “Just doing my thing and enjoying the process.”

As for what he’s seen in the AHL as a rookie goalie trying to make his way in the game, Villalta talked about how every aspect of play is faster than what he was accustomed to in the Ontario Hockey League.

The shots “are a lot harder, and in the AHL guys hit their spots almost every time,” he added. “Their releases are so much quicker and so much more deceptive than in junior. But I feel as if I’m doing a pretty-good job of figuring things out.”

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