For the past two off-seasons, the Kings have been vying to improve their goaltending pipeline, an effort that came into much greater focus in the summer of 2017. Signing goaltender Cal Petersen of Notre Dame on July 1 was a coup – the former fifth round draft pick and highly acclaimed NCAA star chose not to sign with the Buffalo Sabres – but wasn’t the only important move the team made in reestablishing what five years ago was perhaps the NHL’s most fruitful goaltending tree of the decade.
By drafting 18-year-old Soo Greyhounds goalie Matthew Villalta in the third round, the Kings checked a second box off of their to-do list – that of a junior-age goaltender deeper down the goaltending hierarchy. By signing Petersen and drafting Villalta, and by signing Darcy Kuemper as a penciled-in back-up to Jonathan Quick, the Kings’ goaltending depth has been re-established with a pair of intriguing names.
Petersen was obviously a huge catch. In 110 games over three seasons with the Fighting Irish, he posted a 55-39-14 record, with a .924 save percentage, 2.30 goals-against average and 11 shutouts. He was a Hockey East First Team All-Star in 2016-17, a year in which he went 23-12-5 with a .926 save percentage.
The soon-to-be 23-year-old described the process that led him to come out of college a year early and inform the Sabres that he’d be considering all potential options, which was ultimately the decision to sign with L.A.
“I looked at kind of everything after the season was done,” he said. “After I had a chance to decompress I kind of looked at my options and talked with my agent, my family and gave Buffalo a chance to kind of have their pitch and see, and then right at the time I let them know that I had this opportunity and I was going to take the opportunity to look around, but I still kept Buffalo as one of my top places because I still felt that they’re a tremendous opportunity. It was just with the opportunity I had presented after my junior year that I could look at other places. They were obviously disappointed but they understood, and I definitely respected how professionally that they handled the whole thing.”
The decision to sign with Los Angeles was influenced heavily by coaching. Dusty Imoo, Goaltending Development, had worked with Petersen two years prior at a Vancouver-based camp run by former Dallas goaltending coach Mike Valley, and Bill Ranford’s work in Los Angeles with Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Bernier, Martin Jones, Ben Scrivens, Peter Budaj and many other talented young goaltenders is part of a fine resume.
“It’s a first class organization. They’ve won Stanley Cups, they have Hall of Famers in charge,” Petersen said. “But the real thing that it came down to for me was the goalie coaching with Dusty Imoo and Bill Ranford. I kind of felt those guys were guys who have developed goalies in the past to be successful in the NHL and could definitely help me get to that place. They’re as respected as anybody around the league, so that was definitely a huge part of it that really drew me here.”
“That was kind of the big thing, looking at goalies who they developed in the past—Bernier and Jones, seeing what they’ve done with their careers, turning into NHL starters. I kinda looked at that, and saw the guys they were working with. That’s a path that I wanted to try to get to. This was kinda the clear way to that.”
So, what type of a goaltender, exactly, is Petersen?
“He’s got a good technical package,” Imoo said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun because I don’t think I’ll have to do a whole lot of change. There are going to be some adjustments because things in the pro game are going to be a little different for him, but I think just getting him to adjust to become a pro is going to be the biggest thing.”
There are areas in which he, like any talented goaltending prospect, can improve. Imoo cited his play behind the net and a general desire for him to loosen up and improvise with his natural talents to a greater degree as ways he can continue to get the most out of his ability.
“I felt he is quite schooled, so he has a lot of knowledge of the game,” Imoo said. “I’m not here to change him, so we slowly are kind of building a bit of a relationship first, and then we’ll get into more of the technical thing. But I think right now, developing the relationship – at least for me, that’s how I’ve always done it, and I think we’re getting along really well now and he seems really open. I’m really excited about it.”
Petersen cited the “expectations” and “intensity” of the pro game as the biggest step forward from the advanced college ranks.
“With college, you have the shortened schedule. It’s not as demanding, every single day, as in pro hockey. That’ll probably be the biggest adjustment. Then, obviously, it’ll be about being around better players and staff that expects a lot more. You don’t get baby sat as much as you do in college. You kind of have to take responsibility for your own game, so it’s something I’m looking forward to.”Villalta, meanwhile, wasn’t present at June’s NHL Draft. He was, however, present at his grandfather’s house in Godfrey, Ontario – roughly 40 minutes north of Kingston, or, for those unfamiliar with Eastern Ontario geography, about 150 miles north of Syracuse, New York – where the NHL Draft was on television and his cell phone was nearby. By the third round of the second day of the draft, not every single draft pick was being carried live as coverage alternated between interviews and analysis, but when his dad saw Matthew’s name flash on the screen, the family erupted in euphoria.
His selection continued an improbable rise in a year he opened as a back-up goaltender. The 14th ranked goalie during NHL Central Scouting’s midseason rankings, he ultimately finished at #16 in the final rankings and had made inroads towards solidifying himself as the Greyhounds #1 goalie.
He finished 25-3-0 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .918 save percentage and found himself on frequent trips between Ontario and Los Angeles, where the Kings continue to work with his raw and malleable ability.
“For myself, I’ve been here in the past at development camp and at the goalie camp two weeks ago,” Villalta said. “The biggest thing for me is just gaining more depth in the net. Obviously when you come here to camp, there’s a lot better shooters that can shoot the puck a lot harder and that can pick the corners, so getting that extra depth will help a lot. Also, having my feet more under me. When I get more spread out, it’s hard to make pushes across the net, and obviously with the speed here at the camp, it’s going to be harder to make saves when your legs are that wide. So that’s probably the biggest thing for me, but probably the biggest [general instruction] is to get our checks on the ice, good ice awareness, and just working hard and competing every day as hard as we can.”
Cal Petersen, on his first impressions at rookie camp:
They’re setting the tone of it being an intense week, and I think that was good, and it started with the first practice. Obviously, with testing yesterday, it kind of gave everybody a chance to get their feet wet, but it was definitely a high intensity practice out there for quite a while, so I think it was good. All the boys got some reps in, so it was positive.
Petersen, on whether it feels good to finally join the organization in person:
Yeah, definitely. Now is kind of when it feels real, and it’s obviously very cool, but it’s kind of a whole new level of play that you have to bring every day, so that’s definitely an adjustment. Just trying to keep my head down and get to work, but anytime you can put on this jersey and play, it’s a really good feeling.
Petersen, on what is being stressed to the goaltenders:
They have a big emphasis on skating, which I love. Right now, it’s just adjusting – playing within my parameters in the [crease], knowing when I can use my athleticism and knowing when I have to use my size a little bit more. That’s something I’m always working on, kind of just having that ice awareness. We’ve already gotten some work done earlier in the summer, which was really beneficial before coming in here. [Reporter: What did you work on?] We kinda touched on everything, but the coolest part of being able to skate with Quickie and Kuemper, and some of the other NHL guys—just getting to learn from those guys and figure it out. It wasn’t as intense as trying to make the team here in rookie camp, but it was good to get my feet wet with that.
Petersen, on Bill Ranford’s influence:
He’s always one who emphasizes the good things he sees. With me, it’s just tightening up my game, and I’m totally open to criticism, and any pointers he might have. I’m one of those guys, and I’m not defending my game, or anything. I’m very open to trying new things. He has a world of knowledge that I can’t wait to tap into.
Petersen, on what Ranford and Dusty Imoo have worked on with him:
I’ve been working on how I handle plays behind the net, which shoulder to look over, and different scenarios that they saw when looking at me in video, how I can tighten up an eliminate some goals against. That was one thing we really talked about right away. Once it was brought up to me, there was a world of difference. I understood what was being said, and we got some chances to work on it.
Petersen, on whether he has a sense of what his workload in Ontario could be:
I still think it’s a little too early … I’m not a guy that needs things guaranteed to me or anything like that. I’m just trying to come here and get better every day, and hopefully that translates into wins for whichever team I’m with, and if I can do that and put my head down and get to work, I’m pretty confident with where I’ll end up at. I mean, it’s pro hockey. There are good goalies on every team, so I’m kind of excited to be able to work with whomever I’m with.
Dusty Imoo, on how he communicates with his goalies and goalie recruits:
I’m an open book for all of them. A lot of other coaches aren’t big on social media and stuff, and a lot of organizations frown on it. But for me, I use it as a tool not to post that I’m partying or anything like that, but I think it’s a good tool to show I’m relevant, I’m current and I’m not that old – and you can tell. The bond gets tighter. … With Cal, we stayed in touch, as I’ve done with all the other goalies.
Imoo, on Villalta:
It’s really exciting for him because everything’s really new. Everything that happens along each step now is brand new. He hasn’t even been a full-time starter yet in the Ontario league, so everything is going to be new as he moves forward. But he’s got a really good head on his shoulders and he’s a quality kid. I think that these steps he takes, I think he’s going to be fun.
Imoo, on working with Villalta and young goalies:
Actually, you know it’s kind of funny. I try to see things glass half full when I watch the kid and find the good things that he does, what can make him a goalie. We all get in our modes where we see the negative in them, but as far as the good things he does, he’s very composed for a young kid and he’s quite smooth. He’s not very strong yet, but he’s just a kid. His movements are really smooth and he seems very, very coachable. Obviously his strength – he needs to get stronger. But at that age, right now I’m not really concerned about that. He’s just going to see here, being at the pro camps and upstairs training, what it takes to become a pro, and hopefully he’ll take it from these camps, and my advice and whatnot, and take that back to junior with him and step that up, strength-wise.
Imoo, on how the team consults with him when setting the team’s pre-draft list:
That’s part of my job. When they’ve knuckled it down to the top seven or whatever that the scouting staff feels are people who are worth looking at, I’ll go and I’ll try to get viewings of them all. It gets tighter. This year’s going to be a little more difficult because I actually have a stable of goalies. Before it was a little bit easier because we were pretty thing. But I’ll generally go out and give my opinions and reports on them. Ultimately it’s the management and the scouting staff, they make the decisions. Yanks and those guys do a great job. I gave my 10 cents worth. Yanks and I will sit down and they take what I have to say. That was the whole point of bringing me into that end of it. Obviously the coaching, but in Winnipeg I did a similar kind of thing.
Imoo, on how he was involved with Petersen’s signing:
When we were looking at free agents, actually, I get a list of the college guys. Because I already knew him from before, and I had been following because I had known him, I said, ‘I’d get him.’ They said he wasn’t available, he was still with Buffalo. Then it kind of revisited itself and I was all over that, so I just really pushed for that. We were really, really lucky, I thought. A great competitor, great kid, great talent. I think he’ll be good.
Imoo, on other aspects of Petersen’s game that can be tweaked:
His behind the net play, he has to become more comfortable with stuff behind the net and stuff. As we go on here, and get to loosen up a little bit – you can tell he’s been schooled a lot, he’s very technical – just maybe loosen him up a little bit. Give him a little more freedom. I don’t know how used to that he is, because a lot of guys go to a lot of schools, they do a lot of training and it looks good and they’re very good skaters, but I want him to have a little bit more freedom to express himself and to have fun making saves and not think that we’re always on him for every single skating movement that he does. I’m just going to really just going to give him a little bit more freedom.