This week, a rumor emerged that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a young Russian goalie named Timur Bilyalov on their radar. That’s understandable, because the team is anxious to settle its goaltending situation behind elite Danish star Frederik Andersen.
The team’s backups have not won all season, and that’s a recipe for disaster in the playoffs, that is if the team can make the playoffs. Although the Maple Leafs have begun to play well under new head coach Sheldon Keefe, the playoffs are still in question.
Are the Maple Leafs Interested in Bilyalov?
Given the Maple Leafs’ recent success with finding young undrafted Russian talent, it’s no surprise that they’re sniffing out another one who is playing in the Kontinental Hockey League and who might dream of playing in the NHL. This time, it’s a goalie who plays with Ak Bars Kazan.
Bilyalov is probably not going to solve the Maple Leafs’ problems in goal this season, unless the team pulls a Ken Dryden.
For those who are too young to know the story, Dryden had never started an NHL game when he graduated from Cornell University. However, in a radical decision, the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff decided to start him in the first round of the 1971 Stanley Cup Playoffs against a talent-loaded Boston Bruins team led by the great Phil Esposito.
Dryden pulled off a miracle and the Canadiens beat the highly-favored Bruins (Did you read that? The Bruins, which would be too much of a sappy Hollywood movie, wouldn’t it?)
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Anyway, that’s NHL history, and Bilyalov will likely help the team next season. But, he’s good. He’s also on a number of other teams’ radar, but so was Ilya Mikheyev and we know where he landed. (Let’s hope it wasn’t former head coach Mike Babcock’s attraction.)
What Do We Know about Bilyalov?
Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote a nice review of the 24-year-old Bilyalov, who has “lit up” the KHL this season with a .957 save percentage and a 1.10 goals-against average (with six shutouts) to lead the KHL. Three more things: (1) his record is 10-1-2 record in 16 games; (2) he set a KHL record in November by playing 316 minutes and nine seconds without surrendering a goal; and (3) his contract with Ak Bars is over on April 30.
Unlike Andersen, Bilyalov isn’t the prototypical NHL goalie. Andersen is 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. By contrast, Bilyalov is 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds. However, in today’s NHL Jonathan Bernier, at 6-foot and 184 pounds, is still playing successfully.
Bilyalov’s size hasn’t limited his success in Russia. Last season, he had a .930 save percentage in 38 games for Riga Dynamo and a .928 save percentage in 2017-18 when he played for both Khanty-Mansiysk and Ak Bars. In short, his record has been above average in his three KHL seasons.
Does Bilyalov Want to Play in the NHL?
Bilyalov hasn’t decided if he wants to pursue a career in the KHL or take a chance playing in the NHL, but he could make a decision by March.
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KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins, who knows Bilyalov well, noted: “As for [Bilyalov’s] desire to play in the NHL, it’s a dream for him as it is for any other player. If the opportunity presented itself, he would certainly give it a shot. He’s been asked the question so many times, but he never seems to believe that it’s actually possible.”
What does Kalnins think of Bilyalov as a player? He described him as a “quiet man” who has a “tremendous work ethic.” Even better, he says that Bilyalov has “excelled in spite of the defenses he’s played behind.”
Kalnins added that Bilyalov is “super calm. If you get one past him, he’ll act as if nothing happened and carry on playing. He has all the tools; however, he’s very small. He compensates his size with what I would call elite positioning, and his movement in the net is very controlled for a guy his size.”
Would the Maple Leafs Be Interested in Bilyalov Long-Term?
What team wouldn’t be interested in a super-talented young goalie, regardless of his size? Although the Maple Leafs’ goalie prospects are considered to be an organizational strength, can an organization have too many strong, young goalies?
Those are all simple questions to answer. Sure, the Maple Leafs are optimistic about 21-year-old Joseph Woll and 20-year-old Ian Scott, however, everyone understands the team’s desire to build up the talent level and goaltending depth behind starter Andersen.
Will the end of April be soon enough? We’ll watch to see what happens with this young goalie. Bilyalov could be a name Maple Leafs Nation comes to know better soon.