Recently, I did my first deep dive into a single prospect when I looked at Tristen Robins. I had written that before Bob McKenzie released his draft rankings for the first three rounds (or 93 picks).
A reminder, that McKenzie makes his rankings by surveying NHL scouts. He then forms his rankings on a sort of consensus. His rankings usually most closely resemble what NHL teams will actually do in a draft, but not necessarily what the best picks are. They can tell you if someone like Alex DeBrincat will fall despite seeming like an obvious steal.
Coincidentally, there were two CHL players whose rankings by public sources (Scott Wheeler, McKeen’s Hockey, Future Considerations, Elite Prospects, etc) were SIGNIFICANTLY higher than Bob’s were. One was the aforementioned Tristen Robins, the other is the subject of this profile: William Villeneuve.
Both were omitted from Bob’s top 93 spots, but included in the Honourable Mentions. Coincidentally, I’ve read lots of good things about them that said they were sleeper picks and potential steals even before Bob’s rankings dropped them into the fourth round.
So, let me introduce you to William Villeneuve and why I think he could be a major steal for the Leafs if they take him.
- Ashley Glover (Dobber Prospects): 35th
- Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): 38th
- Kyle Pereira (Puck Prose): 38th
- Dylan Griffing (from Dobber Prospects): 41st
- Josh Tessler (Smaht Scouting): 47th
- Samuel Tirpak (Dobber Prospects): 47th
- Tony Ferrari (from Dobber Prospects): 49th
- Future Considerations: 50th
- Will Scouching: 65th
- The Hockey Writers: 76th
- McKeen’s Hockey: 105th
William Villeneuve’s backstory is pretty much the exact opposite of Tristen Robins. He was picked 2nd overall in the QMJHL draft. He had 19 points for Saint John in his rookie season as a 16/17 year old. He played for Canada’s Red Team in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, where he had 4 points in 6 games. So he’s always had some hype around him.
This season, he led all his team in points 58 in 64 games. As a 17-year-old, draft-eligible defenseman. That was also good enough to lead all defensemen in the league in points — not all draft-eligible defensemen, ALL defensemen regardless of age.
He played on the top pair for Saint John even last season. He has been played in all situations: top minutes at even strength, on the powerplay and on the penalty kill.
But he did not play for Canada at the Hlinka. He was invited to the WJC training camp but didn’t make the roster. And now his NHL draft rankings have fallen out of the first three rounds, if Bob McKenzie’s rankings are to be believed. All despite being a 6’1”, right shot defenseman who can lead his team and all defensemen in points. What gives?
William Villeneueve’s Big Flaws
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but after reading as many scouting reports about Villeneuve as I could, there are two big knocks on his game: his size and his skating. However, the details around those weaknesses are... weird.
First, his size. He’s 6’1”... that isn’t exactly short. It’s average or maybe even a bit above average for a defenseman, who might even still add another inch. The issue is his strength and weight, as he is listed as 163 lbs. That is a bit skinny for a defenseman, and even scouting reports that are high on Villeneuve agree that he needs to add muscle so he isn’t pushed around as much, and so he can dominate in the defensive zone more.
Second, his skating. He doesn’t exactly look like a graceful gazelle, and he does not have very good straight-line speed. That combination seems to have made people sour on his skating overall. Case in point:
If you're trying to sell William Villeneuve on the merits of his skating; I'm revoking your scout's card. pic.twitter.com/K4ZmlZ4uoD— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) June 28, 2020
This is also something that people who rank Villeneuve highly note as an area of improvement — his skating looks wonky, he stands too upright, and his skating lacks explosiveness. A few people link his issues with strength with things like his skating. If he gets stronger, especially in his legs and core, he should get faster and more explosive in a straight line.
William Villeneuve’s Strengths
Now I’m going to tell you something interesting: I think that if an NHL team is smart, they’ll ignore those flaws. Or hopefully they don’t and Villeneuve can fall to the Leafs with one of their two picks in the fourth round.
Here’s the thing, while being strong enough to handle NHL players is important, it’s also something that is maybe one of the easier things for a prospect to develop — especially one who doesn’t have to overcome being 5’7” or something. He may be a beanpole now, but NHL teams have conditioning teams and strength coaches and nutritionists. The Leafs in particular would be able to train him up good and proper. I mean, have you seen some of the instagram photos of various Leafs players and prospects? Nylander went from a pretty boy band idol to a thicc marble sculpture of an ancient Swedish god of war.
There’s no guarantee that he winds up getting strong enough to really have an impact in the NHL, just as there’s no guarantee that he improves his skating enough. That’s a risk with pretty much all but the very best prospects when they’re drafted.
Speaking of his skating, it’s funny how depending on who you ask it is both his greatest flaw or his greatest strength. I mentioned above that his mechanics look weird and he isn’t exactly a high end speedster. That’s a concern for people who don’t rank him highly. However, others take a different look at his skating.
Sam Happi (@DraftLook) at DraftGeek.com had this great scouting profile of Villeneueve, and I highly recommend you read it as it has a lot of videos breaking down various skills:
Here is an important section he writes about his skating:
He’s very upright and doesn’t achieve much of a knee bend, but he’s still able to skate it out from behind his net and leave a forechecker in his tracks nonetheless. He’s not explosive and he’s not going to fly by anyone, but it does the job. People see an unorthodox skating style and automatically conclude that a player is a poor skater, but that’s not always the case. Villeneuve is still able to create sufficient separation from forecheckers and consistently exit the zone with control, so there’s little concern on my end. In fact, you could even present the possibility that there’s some untapped speed and explosiveness there if he can clean that stride up as he develops.
For what his stride sacrifices in speed, it offers lot of in agility. Villeneuve moves very well side-to-side and can dodge defenders while skating through the neutral zone. He’s also able to employ the odd fake to shake off a forechecker.
This actually reminds me a bit about Rasmus Sandin. Sandin has better high end speed, but I don’t think of him as a speedster either. He’s more known for his elusiveness to avoid forecheckers and make a clever pass or deke to start a breakout.
Here’s why I think this distinction is important. I was having trouble finding a way to express it, when in the middle of working on this I came across this article in The Athletic profiling Wes Clark — the Leafs’ assistant director of player personnel. What I found very interesting was this part:
Clark sought creative players who had a skill set the organization could build on. He dissected players, getting to the root of why they were either performing well or underperforming. That helped him find overlooked value.
“You want to get out of that kind of typical talk. You want to make sure you’re articulate and not just saying, ‘Hey, this player is a bad skater,’ but asking ‘Why is he bad? Can we improve it? What’s wrong with his stride?’ and not just saying ‘This kid sucks, he can’t skate, move on,’” Raftis said.
So this is exactly what I think is happening with Villeneuve. People see weird skating that doesn’t look clean or fluid, and see that he doesn’t have the highest top speed, and they devalue him. They don’t look at the whole of how effective his skating is in other ways. They don’t think about why his speed his bad, or how much it can be improved.
But after reading very conflicting reports on Villeneuve, I did something new for the first time in my life. I bought past QMJHL game videos so I could see Villeneuve play. I wanted to see him play and skate live myself, not just carefully picked clips to make him look good or bad. I picked 2 games, one where I saw he had four points and another where I saw he had zero points and was a -5.
What I saw is that everything said about him is right. His skating is not pretty. He is also not the fastest, but I wouldn’t say he’s slow. The speediest forwards in the league could blow by him. But he can pull away from most guys in the QMJHL, or at least not get caught by them once he has a lead. But he’s also very agile and shifty, he can easily elude forecheckers and defenders in the neutral zone with a little shimmy or change of direction. I can see issues that could hurt him in the NHL, but I can also see room for him to get better.
Love this clip of William Villeneuve. Good hands and great work with tight pivots/turns to evade traffic. #2020NHLDraft | @FCHockey pic.twitter.com/F5PvC1Wgib— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) March 1, 2020
There was something else I really wanted to see when I watched him...
William Villeneuve’s Transition Game
One thing I read in profiles from Scott Wheeler, Sam (linked above), and others who are high on Villeneuve is that his biggest strength is in transition play — both offensively and defensively.
Offensively, it was mostly about how his agility helps him with zone exits and entries. He is also quite an effective passer and playmaker. But what I didn’t really see mentioned specifically that I saw in a few highlight packs is his stretch passing. It reminded me of the golden years of Jake Gardiner. This highlight video has some good examples of his stretch passing, and here are two specific clips:
William Villeneuve is one of the most under-appreciated players of this years draft class. His ability to read defenses and find open space is some of the best in the CHL. His timing and Hockey IQ in transition is also top end often catching opposition completely off guard. pic.twitter.com/TLc2XkyILq— Finlay Sherratt (@FinlaySherratt) May 27, 2020
Dawson Stairs with the SWEET finish on a stretch pass from William Villeneuve. #SeaDogs15 @QMJHL pic.twitter.com/HLTR1fbPAc— Saint John Sea Dogs (@SJSeaDogs) January 5, 2020
On the defensive side, Villeneuve seemed to have good anticipation. He was able to break up attempts at zone entries by the opposition. Here are two good examples from one of the games of his that I watched:
He is by no means a very physical defender, but he is smart. In one of the games I watched, half of the game was played with one team in the penalty box. He played the vast majority of the time on his team’s penalty kill, and he did well at it. He broke up zone entry attempts, and he intercepted passes in his own end to break up set plays. When he could get his stick on the puck he was able to make smart plays not just to dump it out, but pass it to a teammate to skate it out and kill more time.
His weakness as a defender lies in both his actual weakness, as noted above, and sometimes getting burned by faster players if he got caught flat footed. I would not say he is a bad defender by any means. In fact overall I thought he looked like a very good one, with some holes in his game that most prospects have when drafted.
Where to Draft William Villeneuve?
This is the big question. It seems like this draft is pretty weak as far as defensemen, which on the one hand can lead to some of them being overrated by teams who are lacking in depth on the blueline (coughs).
But William Villeneueve not being in Bob’s rankings of the first three rounds at all seems... excessive. If he is still available in the fourth round, I think the Leafs would be laughing. But somehow I don’t see that happening. Bob’s rankings aren’t infallible, even if they’re more accurate in portraying what NHL teams are thinking. I just can’t see a RHD with his skills and potential falling that far, especially after leading his team and the QMJHL in points.
Even as a second round pick I don’t think it would be a huge reach, by the Leafs or any team. If the Leafs do take him, I would think it’s because the Leafs under Dubas see his potential and think they can work on improving his flaws.
I think the lack of raw offensive upside to score goals or rack up points on the powerplay could limit his ceiling, but I also don’t really care about that. I would love a right shot defenseman who can drive play, generate zone exits, and hit stretch passes like we haven’t seen since Jake Gardiner.
If you also want to read more about Villeneuve, these are some of the publicly accessible profiles you can access (I purchased some draft guides that I can’t link).
How worried are you about his skating given everything people say about it, good and bad?
This poll is closed
Might have some flaws that the Leafs skills coaches can work on fixing
It’s a red flag for sure, I’d avoid taking him until later rounds