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I feel like I could almost take what I wrote about Chadwick, and just ctrl+f replace Chadwick with Villeneuve and call it a day. It's kind of funny that two of the very few defensemen that Toronto has drafted in the past several years, and the only two over 6'0", seem so similar to me.
|Age as of July 1||21.28|
It's hard to avoid giving a guy like Villeneuve a bit of a push in his rankings just because of how how few other defensive prospects there are in Toronto's system that have any real chance of making the NHL at all. But let's talk about him as he is, and as he deserves.
On a team with so few defensemen prospects in their pipeline, Villeneuve is arguably their second best hope of being an NHLer. On the other hand, his future is anything but certain. He had an up and down QMJHL career in junior, from leading the league in points in his draft year, to a down year in a pandemic shortened season, to leading Saint John in minutes played and winning the Memorial Cup.
Villeneuve's development saw a rise and fall as well. He was a guy that was more offensive than defensive, and whose skating issues saw him tumble to the middle rounds despite his size, handedness, points and pedigree as the 2nd overall pick in the QMJHL draft. After being drafted by Toronto, they worked hard with him on his skating and his defense. That may have made him look like he took a step back because of his points, but it helped him come back in his final junior season to be a true leader and top defenseman playing 25-30 minutes per game.
This past year, he turned pro and had his rookie season in the AHL with the Marlies. He had 25 points in 54 games playing mostly on the third pair, which was good for a tie of 7th in the AHL for defensemen under 21 years old. That puts him in the range of being a good young defenseman for offense, but not among the elite ones who are more locks to be NHLers. He did get some powerplay time (10 PP points), but not necessarily all the time or on the top unit. That usually went to Hoefenmayer and eventually Niemelä, I believe.
Nonetheless, it was a strong rookie season for him. It keeps the hopes alive that he could still develop into a guy that could make the NHL one day, but it will require further improvements. He's 21 years old now, turning 22 in March, so he'll have another year or two to make those improvements.
Last year, we ranked Villeneuve 14th. Him dropping two spots may seem like we think he's taken a step back, but I'm not really sure that's true. He's probably in the same general tier for people as he was before.
Here's what I wrote in last year's ranking post:
I am still not 100% sure that Villeneuve will be able to hang in the NHL. It comes back to what Katya has said about so many of our forward prospects — they’re not bluechippers, most will have to learn to be PKers, play defensively and physically and responsibly. The same is true of Villeneuve — he’s not going to be a Norris winner with a lot of points in the NHL. He’s going to have to play reliable two way hockey from the blue line. Limit dangerous scoring chances against, transition the puck up the ice, and kill penalties. Any offensive production he has in the way of points will be gravy, and it will come at even strength. He could be a second PP unit guy someday, but he isn’t going to get that chance unless he checks those other boxes first.
By all accounts, he made some real improvements in these areas over time last season. He got good reviews from the coaches and development staff for working on his skating and physical strength (to help his defense mainly). He finished with the team's highest plus-minus or even strength GF% among defensemen, whichever floats your boat.
This year, he will have a chance to step up into a second pair role. Especially if Toronto winds up using Lagesson or Lajoie or one of their other new signings as NHL depth. If he can take on bigger minutes, more regular PP time, more PK time, all while making continued improvements to his skating and defense, he'll be very close to being a potential third pairing NHL guy. The question is how much more can we expect him to improve in his development?
Last year I ranked Villeneuve 13th, this year I ranked him 16th. It's in the same kind of tier for me, so I don't consider him to have really moved in my estimation of him at all. His season last year was enough to convince me that there's still a chance, but not a better one.
I've always had a soft spot for Villeneuve. Every account I've read of him as a person, he seems very wholesome. He'd also be a fun underdog success story for a fourth round pick who proved his doubters wrong. And he would help fill a need that Toronto has. I've always seen a bit of Cody Franson in him, in terms of his size, handedness, and kind of play. Franson was not a great defensive defenseman or speedster either, but he had underrated offensive skill in moving the puck and made a nice little career for himself.
I'll be rooting for Villeneuve to follow in his footsteps.
Here's what the other voters had to say:
dhammm: Villeneuve seemed to acclimate well to the AHL. Looking at NHLe, he managed to ramp his production in his rookie season despite changing leagues and moving up in difficulty. Maybe it's memories of Matt Finn, but my eyebrows rise whenever I see a prospect debut in the AHL like this, such that even if there are warts in his game still, I am bullish on Villeneuve. Looking forward to him holding down the RD with Niemela on the Marlies next season.
Zone Entry: Villeneuve made it to #10 on my list thanks largely to having a respectable first AHL season, and RHD being a bit more rare than other positions. Does having a cool lyrical name help? Maybe. But there still appears to be a steadily upward trajectory going on with young Villy that’s got him to the Marlies at least, hopefully further.
The Bag: My main concern with Villeneuve, since the day he was drafted, was that he’d have to become a very different type of player to find success in the NHL. Maybe I’m too bearish on his offensive talents, but I suspect they’re not strong enough to overcome his limitations (which are in most of the wrong places for a defender—it’s a rare defender who doesn’t need skating as an asset). Would be very happy to be wrong, but he seems like the kind of player whose strengths and weaknesses make him workable in the AHL and less so in the NHL.
Catch-67: From the little I followed the Marlies this season, Villeneuve seemed to acclimate pretty well in his first season in pro. He still seems like a longshot to me, given his offensively-tilted game, but playing a full-time role on the Marlies and not seeming entirely lost defending pro players this past season is a good start. I’m hoping that development keeps going and someday he might be a decent third pair option for the Leafs.
Hardev: Not bad to be a regular third pair guy for the Marlies at 20 years old. We’ll see whether he progresses this year or if things flatten out. Using Sandin, Liljegren, and Holl as benchmarks for offensive-leaning defensive prospects who all made the jump at different stages in their careers. Villeneuve is kind of already behind the two Swedes as he’s not a regular top pair guy by 20, nor are we expected to see him get there at 21. For Holl, who came into the league later, he was an undeniable top pair guy for the Marlies by 24, so a gradual progression could be a path forward to a good third-pair NHL career or above. He’ll need to be in the top half of the lineup (ie. the main guy on the second pair or higher) by this season, though. He’s about where Kristians Rubins was at around the same age. I can’t help but see similarities there. I liked Rubins, I still hope he breaks the league someday, and I see the possibility for Villeneuve, too.
That's what we all think, and now it's your turn! What do you think of Toronto's big Quebecois defenseman's chances of making more improvements and getting that much closer to the NHL? Will he improve upon his rookie season in minutes, points, and scouting love?
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