“Does this at 16? »: Xavier Villeneuve, a defender with extraordinary skills

BOISBRIAND – Balls. It was necessary for a club to select Xavier Villeneuve in the first round of the 2023 QMJHL draft, the director of the circuit’s Recruitment Support Center, Pierre Cholette, warned us last June.

Without a doubt, the defenseman had just demonstrated exceptional offensive capabilities during his season with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, an under-15 program, and then in the QMJHL Cup, a tournament that brings together the best prospects. But at 5’8″ and 139 pounds, who would dare draft him?

The Blainville-Boisbriand Navy. In eighth place.

After drafting forward Mateo Nobert with the third overall pick, the Basses-Laurentides team was so keen not to miss that opportunity to draft the flamboyant rearguard that it completed a transaction involving six draft picks with the Shawinigan Cataractes to advance their next right to speak. .

“From what I was told, it was Joël (Bouchard) who made the decision,” reveals Navy coach Mathieu Turcotte, who at that time was not yet in the club team of Bouchard, former coach and general. administrator, still owns shares as owner.

“It was definitely a great decision. »

Seeing Bouchard’s admiring look and ear-to-ear smile as he welcomed Villeneuve into the Armada family, we can’t be surprised at what happened next.

Since Villeneuve appeared on the draft stage in Moncton 10 months ago, the Les Cèdres hockey player has initially gained momentum. The recent update of his measurements on the QMJHL website today gives him a weight of 150 pounds spread over a 5-foot-10 frame.

However, it is primarily through his prowess on the blue line that he proves the Armada team right.

“I had never seen his ability to make plays with the puck at that age,” Turcotte marvels. What he does with the record is pretty incredible. That’s why he led our first power play unit at 16 years old. (…) he makes games that not many people are capable of making. »

The examples are already numerous and Turcotte does not need to rack his brain much to present some of them, but one in particular comes spontaneously to mind.

“It was against Drummondville, at the end of the game, and it was tied 3-3. He beat the winger, got into the slot, beat another player to get the puck toward him, then shot and scored the game-winning goal in the final minute. This is the type of game Xavier can make. »

ContentId(3.1442326):LHJMQ: The talent of Xavier Villeneuve (hockey)
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“It’s magical,” admires Justin Carbonneau, another rising Navy star with whom Villeneuve plays especially in the five-man attack. “You look at it and you have no words. He does does it move on the blue line that no one else in the league can do. Does he do this at 16? At 19 it’s going to be amazing! It has extraordinary potential. »

Recalibrate

However, success was not instantaneous for Villeneuve upon his return from Pennsylvania, where he had gone into exile in search of a “new experience” and autonomy in anticipation of a junior internship far from home at a boarding school.

“It was clear in my head that I wanted to come back and play in the QMJHL. I could find myself far from home, I didn’t know I was going to come out in the same way close to home,” explains this man who grew up in Bas-Saint-Laurent before moving to the Montreal region. “Before I was very much a mama’s boy. »

Although the opposition offered in Pittsburgh, by his own admission, was slightly inferior to that offered on Quebec’s AAA M18 circuit, Villeneuve was able to put in many hours on the ice to perfect his craft.

” The game It was a little different. He was much less focused on the system than in Quebec, but I was able to develop skills that he would have had less time to work on here. »

“I think he had more time to make plays,” Turcotte analyzes. We had to recalibrate everything when we got here so I could play with guys who were a little faster and bigger. »

Like many offensive players of his profile, Villeneuve risked trying risky plays in his first steps in the QMJHL, which caused his young 38-year-old coach to turn gray.

“Xavier was trying to force plays, instead of making the play in front of him. That’s normal for a player with so much offensive ability,” Turcotte puts things into perspective.

“We want you to try this type of game if you think it’s the right thing to do, because that’s how you’re going to get better. We must not (distort it). We selected him for all the talent he has and we want him to progress as quickly as possible. »

“There is a time to do what I do,” Villeneuve acknowledges. (…) I make mistakes, but I thank you very much for trusting me. People don’t pat me on the wrist too much when I make mistakes. »

Xavier Villeneuve

The memories

This patience towards him from Turcotte and his coaching staff initially allowed Villeneuve to acclimate to the rigors of a more demanding schedule, especially for a rookie of his stature.

“He’s now 5’10.” You can play anywhere at 5’10”. Because of the way he plays, with his sense of the game, he doesn’t get hit often. He moves so well on his skates and sees plays coming so well that his size isn’t really an issue. It was more about adapting to the number of games and the volume of ice,” Turcotte clarifies.

“All of our 16-year-olds hit a small wall on the corner in November or early December. Often after Christmas is when they leave. »

Confident in his return from the World U17 Challenge, where he represented Canada in early November, Villeneuve began racking up points upon returning from vacation. Notably, with a streak of nine games with at least one point (a franchise record for a rookie defenseman), Villeneuve accumulated 30 points in his final 25 regular season games.

His 43 points (8 goals, 35 assists) in 54 games also constitute another franchise mark for a first-year point guard, as does his assist streak.

On the defensive aspect, Villeneuve converted the minus-10 differential with which he concluded the year 2023, into a positive return (0), barely approaching the plus-1 goal that he set for the end of the campaign.

“It’s much, much better,” observes Turcotte of his young protégé’s defensive reliability. “The important thing for him was to understand that the better he defends, the more puck he will have and the more we can attack as a team. (…) We want Xavier to have the puck, I want Xavier to have the puck. »

In fact, it would be crazy to deprive him of it.

“I have no doubt he will be a star (in our league). »

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