The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of multiple NHL teams taking an interest in signing the Kontinental Hockey League’s top goaltender, Sportsnet has learned.
Ak Bars Kazan’s Timur Bilyalov, who was never drafted into the NHL, has lit it up in Russia this season, posting an eye-popping .957 save percentage, six shutouts and a 1.10 goals-against average — league bests, all.
He holds a 10-1-2 record in 16 games played.
Bilyalov, 24, snapped a KHL record in November by going 316 minutes and nine seconds without surrendering a goal.
The goaltender’s contract with Ak Bars expires on April 30.
Bilyalov has not yet determined whether to pursue his career in the KHL or go to the NHL. He could make his decision by March.
At five-foot-10 and 174 pounds, Bilyalov is certainly smaller than the typical North American goaltender, but his three pro seasons have all yielded above-average results.
Bilyalov registered an impressive .930 save percentage last season (38 games played) for Riga Dynamo and a .928 save percentage in 2017-18, when he split his season with Khanty-Mansiysk and Ak Bars.
“As for his desire to play in the NHL, it’s a dream for him as it is for any other player. If 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,” says KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins, who knows Bilyalov well.
Kalnins describes Bilyalov as a quiet man with a tremendous work ethic, a goaltender who has excelled in spite of the defences he’s played behind.
“He wanted to return to play in Riga for this season as well, but Ak Bars offered a lot of cash for Riga to trade him back to his home team. Ak Bars was a defensive team in prior years and not so much this year following a coaching change, so a lot of [the] team’s success is him,” Kalnins says.
“He’s 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.”
While the Maple Leafs are optimistic about prospects Joseph Woll, 21, and Ian Scott, 20, it is of little secret that the organization is eager to bolster its goaltending depth behind No. 1 Frederik Andersen.
Backup Michael Hutchinson is still searching for his first victory of the season, and his next start is projected for this weekend’s back-to-back.
“[Hutchinson] has been a good goalie in the past, and he’s played well in stretches here, and I’ve got full belief that he can get back, that you just don’t lose it overnight and there’s always a regression to the mean to be had,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said earlier this month.
“I don’t think we want to be hasty. We want to be patient and to show our belief. I know that’s not the answer that people would like. I think if we were going to satisfy the masses, it would be to just make a move to make a move. I understand that, but we’ve got belief in him and will continue to support him here.”
The Leafs have often mined Europe’s talent base for unsigned talent, most recently bringing over former KHL forward Ilya Mikheyev, who ranks fourth in NHL rookie scoring with 18 points.