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Is Dennis Hildeby the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltender of the future?
By Steven Ellis2 months ago
If all goes well, one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ current goaltenders – Ilya Samsonov and Dennis Hildeby – will establish themselves as the team’s goalie of the future.
Consistent goaltending has been difficult to come by for the Leafs, a group that has cycled through options on a consistent basis since Ed Belfour left the club in 2006. We’ve seen Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell try their hand at it, but with mixed results. Between them, not one of them won a playoff series.
Samsonov overtook Matt Murray as the team’s starter last year, largely due to Murray’s injury issues. But he has struggled to be consistent this year, and at one point, the difference between Samsonov and Woll was incredible. Woll had his own injury concerns to get over last year, but he quickly established himself as one of the AHL’s top goaltenders before getting the call-up prior to the Stanley Cup playoffs. When Samsonov went down with his own injury, Woll gave it his all, and even helped avoid a sweep at the hands of the Florida Panthers in the second round.
But what if neither Samsonov nor Woll is the answer? Enter Dennis Hildeby.
The Maple Leafs took the 6-foot-7 Swedish monster with the 122nd overall pick in 2022 – as a triple overager. That’s a rare occurrence, but Hildeby put himself on the map after putting up some great numbers in limited pro action with Farjestad in the SHL. He had a .931 save percentage in seven games, matching the same numbers in 12 U-20 league games. Given he had so little pro experience at 21 years old, when most other top European goalie prospects have at least 2-3 years under their belt, it was still a surprising pick.
But his makeup as a massive unit made him intriguing, and now it’s starting to pay off. Currently, in his first year of North American pro, Hildeby has a 3-3-2 record with two shutouts and a .935 save percentage. The Marlies are a midpack team, but Hildeby has been the class of the field in the team’s three-headed monster, including Keith Petruzzelli and long-time NHL starter Martin Jones.
Hildeby’s rise is coming at an interesting time. Samsonov is a UFA next summer, and the Leafs might want to shed a bit of the $3.55 million cap hit he’s making. Moneypuck has Samsonov’s goals saved above expected at -4.8, one of the worst in the league. The Russian keeper has had some tremendous highs throughout his tenure, and he still holds a 4-1-3 record this year. But inconsistency has been the most consistent part of his time in the city.
So it would be understandable if the Leafs moved on from him, but that doesn’t mean Hildeby should be the answer. Ideally, if Samsonov does move on, the Leafs would sign a veteran for a year to work with Woll before seeing if Hildeby is truly ready for the next step. Cam Talbot, maybe? Or bringing back Reimer? Marc-Andre Fleury would be a logical option, but he’ll be 40 next year. This feels like his swan song.
The Leafs don’t need to rush Hildeby, and it seems doubtful they’d want two goalies with limited NHL experience leading the charger for a group with high expectations. But if Hildeby keeps playing the way he is with the Marlies, he’ll at least make the decision spicy. Hildeby is still just 22. For context, Woll finally just became a full-time NHLer at 25. Injuries played a role in that, but he didn’t show he was ready until the latter stages of 2022-23 anyway.
Hildeby has the size very few in the NHL possess. He’s athletic, tracks pucks well and has a good head on his shoulders. For a longshot prospect, Hildeby has a base that makes him such an exciting prospect. He only has a 10-game sample size in North America, but it’s been a couple of good years of quality hockey that makes him worth keeping a close eye on. The Leafs signed Martin Jones as the team’s official third goalie in case of an injury with the big club, allowing Hildeby to stay relaxed focused on helping the Marlies make the playoffs.
“Give Hildeby some time, because he needs it. But many seem confident that he’s an NHL-caliber goalie,” a scout said. “But in what way? We’ll see. There’s some intriguing qualities there that could make him a starter.”
It’s too early to give Hildeby an accurate read on the future. The Leafs are in win-now mode, and if Hildeby is part of the team’s future, they’ll have to bring him up when the time is right. That feels like 2025-26, but who knows? The Leafs could be in a totally different position by then. Heck, maybe Samsonov steals the starter’s role back. It’s still too early to say.
But Hildeby’s start has been magnificent, and that’s encouraging.
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