William Villeneuve could turn out to be one of the NHL Draft’s top blueliners

It is almost universally agreed upon in the NHL draft following that Jamie Drysdale is the top defenceman in the draft (and a candidate to go as high as third overall), but there’s more debate over which player will have the second best career. Jake Sanderson seems to have made himself the favourite with a push in quality of play over the second half of the season, and I would bet money on him being the second defender off the board on draft day at this point, but it’s no guarantee that another one of this class’ defencemen wouldn’t ultimately overtake him in a redraft several years down the line.

It’s a wide open field afterwards: Jérémie Poirier, Lukas Cormier, Emil Andrae, Braden Schneider, William Wallinder, and Kaiden Guhle could all be considered the third best defenceman in the draft. You could even throw guys like Justin Barron, Helge Grans, and Ryan O’Rourke into that group as well. But there’s a lesser known defender that I believe has a very real shot at being a better NHL player than all those players, and even potentially Jake Sanderson if everything breaks right, and that’s Jérémie Poirier’s defence partner in Saint John: William Villeneuve.

Villeneuve is shaping up to be one of the biggest steals at the draft: NHL Central Scouting ranked him as their 99th (!!) best North American skater in their final ranking, and he was omitted from Bob McKenzie’s mid-season list (formed by a panel of 10 NHL scouts, McKenzie’s rankings are considered the best indicator of how the draft will play out). For a guy who scouts should have seen plenty of in their viewings of Poirier, that’s stunningly low. In my viewings of the Saint John Sea Dogs, I’ve almost always come away more impressed with Villeneuve’s play than Poirier. Poirier is the flashier player with drastically more raw skill, but Villeneuve’s steady mobile game was arguably even more impactful. Whereas Poirier might disappear for a longer stretch and then reappear with an end-to-end rush or hard shot from the blueline, Villeneuve consistently made positive plays to move the puck forward and maintain possession for his team.

It’s interesting that Villeneuve has flown so far under the radar– it’s not as though he came out of nowhere as a prospect. He was actually a higher draft pick in the 2018 QMJHL Entry Draft than Poirier, going six picks earlier at second overall. He was even seen as a potential candidate for first overall, but Chicoutimi opted for centre Hendrix Lapierre instead. His intelligent decision-making and knack for finding space in transition earned him a comparison to Kris Letang by his midget coach, none other than former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Felix Potvin, going into that draft.

Villeneuve didn’t make Canada’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup roster last August. Had he played at that tournament, I think the narrative around him might be a little different. Jérémie Poirier made a name for himself as one of the top offensive defencemen in the draft with three points in five games at that tournament and it seems as though Villeneuve has almost had a status of being “the guy who plays with Poirier” ever since, even though it was Villeneuve who was drafted higher into the QMJHL and actually had a very slightly stronger offensive draft-minus-one season than Poirier on a per-game basis in 2018-19. If there’s anything that I want everyone to take from this article, it’s that Villeneuve was just as important a part of that pairing than Poirier was.

Villeneuve had a terrific draft season– playing with a guy like Poirier definitely helped quite a bit, but as I said, I actually see Villeneuve as the steady driver of that pairing. He had a higher rate of primary points per game at even strength than Poirier (who is seen by some as the top offensive defenceman in the draft), and the pair were actually identical in their rates of primary points per match at all situations. Villeneuve led all first time draft eligible CHL defencemen in even strength primary points per game and total primary points per game (tied with Poirier) and only Jamie Drysdale had more total points per game.

Let’s expand our sample to past seasons to put Villeneuve’s season into perspective. He posted the third highest rate of even strength primary points per game of any CHL defender from 2008 onwards, behind only Ryan Ellis and Evan Bouchard. Villeneuve falls to 22nd when we shift to total primary points per game because of an absence of high-end powerplay production.

Time for some video.

Villeneuve is most impactful in transition and on the breakout. His positive influence in this area is made possible by two things: his mobility as a skater and his ability to read the play and find space for himself to move the puck forwards. The defenceman is an above-average skater, but has a wonky stride that probably contributes to his underappreciated value.

This video shows his stride well. 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. Loses the initial opponent with an excellent body fake here:

And another nice rush with an elusive move in the neutral zone:

His skating is what enables it, but Villeneuve’s overarching sense for open ice and ability to find is the primary driver of his effectiveness on the breakout. More space means more time, and more time to process the situation means a higher likelihood of making the best possible play. The key to being able to create time and space in transition is escaping forecheckers, something Villeneuve can do very proficiently.

The ability to make smaller, non-flashy plays like this one– carrying the puck around the net, sensing that one side of the ice is crowded with opposing players, being a strong enough skater to reverse directions without being caught by the initial forechecker, and then making a clean outlet to the open wall– can actually make or break a player’s impact in transition. Defencemen with the smarts and mobility to even just make a play like this one often tend to be positive influences on the breakout, whereas those that force the puck into dense areas or don’t skate well enough to escape that first forechecker will end up surrendering the puck to the opposition more often that not.

Another more subtle but important tool that Villeneuve possesses is the ability to quickly move the puck to an open teammate in transition when he isn’t in the position to break it out himself. Similar to his sense for open ice, Villeneuve has an outstanding sense for the location of the defensive partner or wingers on the walls.

 

The best element of Villeneuve’s game, in my opinion, is the ability he’s shown at moving the puck from his defensive zone to the offensive portion of the ice. His talents extend beyond transition though– you don’t lead the CHL in defencemen scoring without being very comfortable with the puck on your stick within the opposing team’s blueline. He isn’t a consistently flashy offensive player, but Villeneuve has shown glimpses of high-end puck skills and vision like he does with this assist:

Similar to what he shows in transition, Villeneuve is a mobile offensive player that can use his feet to escape defenders and find space.

He’s certainly a capable offensive player, but the majority of Villeneuve’s points at the NHL level should originate from his transitional ability. Whether it’s off a zone entry with his feet and hands like Villeneuve demonstrates in the first two clips below, or a lengthy stretch pass to send a teammate in for a breakaway like the video below it, Villeneuve’s proficiency at moving the puck from one end of the ice to the other should be responsible for a large portion of his offensive totals moving forward.

Defensively, Villeneuve’s game is generally quite solid. He definitely has the momentary slip-ups and irregular mistakes that are customary for his age, but you’ll see him making positive plays in his own zone more often than not.

He defends his blueline quite well, with the correct mindset of looking to step up on the opposition and deny the zone entry right at the line. This is another element of his game that should make him a strong possession player: by rejecting entries at the blueline, a player is denying all opportunity for the opposing team to generate shots and opportunities. A player that can deny opposing zone entries at a high-level should be more valuable defensively than one who excels at recovering the puck in his corners but concedes his own blueline the majority of the time.

The play above is also a good example of where Villeneuve’s lack of speed and explosiveness can sometimes hold him back. He denies the entry and recovers the puck, but isn’t able to create any separation from his opponent and is forced to just dump the puck in. A quicker first step could add a real dynamic element to Villeneuve’s game, allowing him to recover that puck and carry it into the offensive zone and look to make a play. He’s fairly limited in what he can do himself with a defender on his back in certain situations as is.

He’s been generally solid whenever I’ve seen him, but there are times where Villeneuve might get caught flat-footed or going the wrong direction as a rush defender, making him highly susceptible to getting beat. Forwards are taught to force defenders to use backwards crossovers in one-on-one situations; when a defender is crossing over, they are committed to traveling laterally in that direction for as long as it takes to complete that crossover, giving the attacker a window of opportunity to cut the other way and get a step. A Halifax forward pulls that off perfectly here, forcing Villeneuve to take a penalty.

Inside his blueline, Villeneuve is a solid fundamental defender that can be relied upon to take away passing lanes, play good positional defence, and kill penalties. He’s able to remove any opportunity for a backdoor play, recover the puck, and clear it on the penalty kill in the following clip:

I see Villeneuve as a player with a very real shot at becoming a top-four defenceman at the NHL level. He’s an all-around player capable of impacting the game in all three zones, with his influence being most pronounced in transition. His sense for space on the breakout and mobility to navigate forechecking pressure to create time for himself is a terrific base of tools that should allow Villeneuve to transition into a successful NHL player. He’s a two-way defender that shows the basic technical tools to develop into a positive defensive player and the 17 year old’s offensive skills, though not flashy, should make him a regular contributor to the scoresheet at the NHL level. Improved skating will be important for Villeneuve to translate his mobility to the faster pace of the NHL, but I don’t see it as a major point of concern as that’s one of the more improvable traits for a player his age. The Sherbrooke native might be a bigger swing that some of the other defencemen in this draft, but I believe whatever team makes a calculated bet on Villeneuve’s stride improving over time will be very happy with their decision looking back. In a draft that’s a little light on potential impact defencemen, Villeneuve’s intelligent, mobile game should be one of the more attractive blueliner packages available to teams at the draft. I would expect him to be drafted somewhere in the second round but I think there’s very real first round upside here.

 

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