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Tucson Roadrunners goalie Matt Villalta continues to kick down barriers

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 26, 2024
Tucson Roadrunners goalie Matt Villalta is ninth in the Ahl with a .916 save percentage.

TUCSON — Matt Villalta’s hockey beginnings in Godfrey, Ontario are an idyllic snapshot of what the game is supposed to represent.

“We grew up on a small farm on a lake,” he said. “It freezes every winter so my dad would get out there and shovel off the lake and at age three or four, he threw us out on skates for the first time and my twin brother (Wyatt) and I just fell in love with it.

“Whatever he did, I was doing, and whatever I was doing, he was doing. We spent a lot of time on the pond and I guess I spent all my minor hockey career right there in Kingston. I never really thought about anything else. At the time, I was just playing the game for fun.”

Twenty-years later, Villalta, 24, is employing that same approach with the Tucson Roadrunners. Entering a game on Friday against the Ontario Reign at Tucson Arena, Villalta led the AHL in games played (29), he was sixth in save percentage (.916) among goalies who had played at least 20 games, and fifth in goals against average (2.47). Those numbers, Tucson’s share of the Pacific Division lead, and Villalta’s ability to stabilize an uncertain Roadrunners goaltending position earned him a spot at the AHL All-Star Classic in San José on Feb. 4 and 5.

“I’d like to tell you we’d be exactly where we are right now and nothing would have changed if we didn’t have Matt, but with goalies, we’ve always known that they can hide mistakes,” Tucson coach Steve Potvin said. “With Matt back there, our guys really play with a little bit more freedom and they can make the next play and not fear that it’s going to end up in the back of their net. First and foremost, he just gives the players the calmness and the poise to play their game and as a result, we have been able to grow our game. 

“Where would we be without him? We’d be working a lot more on D-zone coverage.”

Leading the AHL in games played was not where Villalta expected to be more than halfway through the season. When the Coyotes signed him to a one-year, $775,000 contract this summer, the idea was to push Ivan Prosvetov, whose development had stalled without much competition from backups such as Jon Gillies and Josef Kořenář.

But when the Colorado Avalanche claimed Prosvetov off waivers at the start of the season, Villalta was thrust into a starting role with unproven prospect Anson Thornton and Dylan Wells (just signed to an AHL deal for the rest of the year off a PTO) as backups.

“When it all happened, it was kind of like, ‘OK, here’s a big opportunity,’ and that was the conversation I had with [goaltending development coach] Charlie [McTavish],” Villalta said. “Honestly, it’s the best blessing I’ve had to come and play here. I know what I can do in the net. I’m confident in myself. I’ve been putting a lot of work in for five years. I’m just fortunate how it all worked out to put me in a great spot.” 

Exceeding expectations is a pattern that Villalta has repeated at multiple levels. No team drafted him in the Ontario Hockey League and he was cut in the USHL and OHL so he signed with a Junior B team in Westport and he was actually attending pilot school in Kingston with Wyatt.

“I honestly thought that was the route I was taking but I was lucky enough that summer that I was invited to Soo Greyhounds (OHL) development camp and I played well enough to get an invite back,” he said.

Matt Villalta played four seasons in the Los Angeles Kings organization. (Getty Images)

Underappreciated value?

When the Los Angeles Kings selected Villalta 72nd overall (third round) in 2017, he was both surprised by the news and barely prepared to receive it.

“I didn’t really expect anything so I went fishing that day,” he said. “I had a pay-as-you-go phone so I had to go down to the gas station in Verona that day — a place called Topper’s Market  — to add minutes on my phone so if someone did call me I would be able to talk to them. 

“I refilled my minutes and then I went back up to my grandparents’ house up the road and I went into the freezer to get some of my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies — she makes really good cookies. My mom and my dad and my sister and my brother were already up there just kind of hanging out so I sat on the couch with them and it was the start of the third round. LA just came up on the ticker and it said my name. It was crazy.”

Unfortunately for Villalta, by the time he reported to the Kings’ AHL affiliate, Cal Petersen was already there. The two became close friends but it was clear that the Kings had anointed Petersen as their goalie of the future (they later traded him) and Villalta was sent to Fort Wayne in the ECHL to get more playing time.

With Petersen elevated to the NHL the following season, Villalta split time with Jean-François Bérubé in Ontario the next season. He played 46 games in 2021-22 but was relegated to backup again the following season behind Petersen, and when the Kings acquired the rights to University of Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo last March, Villalta’s days with the organization appeared numbered.

“At the end of day, I just don’t think they had a plan for me there,” he said. “I just felt like I was putting in all the work, doing everything I could do for an opportunity and it just never came. At the end of the year, I figured maybe they might move on and when I didn’t get qualified (as a restricted free agent), I was like, ‘Alright, well, let’s go find a new job.’ Again, I couldn’t be more grateful that it ended up being Arizona.”

Matt Villalta leads the AHL in games played. (Photo courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners)

Villalta’s opportunity

When Villalta arrived in Tucson, Potvin admits he had “no clue” what he was getting. His team had only faced Villalta once and he had never evaluated his game.

McTavish got to work on that evaluation. What he found was a player whose technical sides were already pretty refined from working with goalie coaches Kory Cooper (now Kingston’s GM) and Dan Stewart (now the goalie coach with Springfield in the AHL).

“The refinements were probably more on the mental, processing side of it and then a little bit from a technical standpoint,” McTavish said. “We worked on being consistent with his depth and how he reads the game. 

“[Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab] has this great saying that I kind of adopted: ‘What is the most likely next play?’ Knowing the options is one thing but what do you think is actually gonna happen? I think that’s helped him process the game a little bit quicker.”

The mental approach and the tactical approach go hand in hand, McTavish said.

“He’s been able to simplify his game because he’s come up with a mental process where he approaches every situation, every shot the same as opposed to figuring it out in the moment.

“I always use this example: If you go to a restaurant and there’s starters and mains and desserts and table d’hôte and all these options and specials, how long does it take you to order? But if you go to a restaurant and there’s three things on the menu, you’re going to order a lot faster. That’s kind of like how you learn a process in the game of hockey. You go from 100 options to knowing what the one option is going to be and only seeing the two or three most important ones.”

Potvin and McTavish both believe that Villalta’s success is aided by his seemingly laid-back approach to the game and life.

“He’s just a chill brother back there,” Potvin said, laughing. “Seeing him go through his process and his routine, he’s very loose so when you don’t know him you’re like, ‘Is this guy ready to go?’ We’re all pacing up and down and he just walks around where it never looks like he’s in deep thought or concerned about anything. You ask him how he’s doing, and he says, ‘Just running like a tap.’ It just makes you laugh right before the game.”

Villalta even has his own lingo.

“I don’t know if he coined these words, but now a lot of the team has adopted them,” McTavish said. “He uses the word ‘mossy,’ which just means cool, chill — it can be anything, really. He’ll say ‘I had a mossy day and that means ‘I had a great day.’ When we do a warm-up and it feels good, he’ll say, ‘That’s crisp’ and you understand what he means.’

After years of being overlooked or playing understudy, Villalta has finally elevated his stature through his play. Where once he was considered Prosvetov’s competition, now he is considered a legitimate NHL prospect. Coyotes goalie scout Clay Adams compares his trajectory to that of Arizona State graduate Joey Daccord, who has seized his opportunity with the Seattle Kraken.

Villalta smiles when he thinks about the possibilities in his future, but he quickly reverts to that guy who prefers to live in the present.

“I know there’s an opportunity here with this organization and whenever that time comes it will come, but in the meantime, I’m here doing everything I can to help the boys here in Tucson,” he said. “We’ve got a real good thing going on. We’re going to keep pushing down here because we have goals down here. We want to win a Calder Cup this year so that’s where my mental state is at right now.”

Top photo of Matt Villalta courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners

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