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Whatever Happened to the Great KHL Goalie Timur Bilyalov?

Late in the 2019 calendar year, KHL goalie Timur Bilyalov was on the Maple Leafs radar. He had a great KHL season. What happened to him?

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Until the Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote an article in late December 2019 about him, I have to admit that I didn’t know much of anything about 25-year-old Tumur Bilyalov. But I soon learned.

As Fox pointed out then, there were three things that might make the Toronto Maple Leafs interested in Bilyalov: (1) his record to begin the KHL season was 10-1-2 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 was over on April 30.

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Obviously, that set Maple Leafs fans to salivating. At that time, Michael Hutchinson (the same goalie who almost carried the Colorado Avalanche to victory over the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Semi-Final series) was the Maple Leafs backup and – to put it mildly – there was little confidence in Hutchinson’s ability to win games as a backup goalie. As a result, a solid backup goalie was needed: could it be Bilyalov?

Bilyalov’s 2019-20 KHL Season

Bilyalov then went on to finish the KHL season – well, as much the KHL season did finish. His play in net didn’t diminish much, and he ended the 2019-20 season as perhaps the KHL’s best goalie. He registered a .943 save percentage and a 1.43 goals-against average during the regular KHL season.

But Bilyalov didn’t stop then. After the regular season, he went on to post even better numbers in his team’s (Ak Bars Kazan) undefeated postseason. That run was only stopped because – in response to COVID-19 – the KHL cancelled the rest of its season and everything shut down.

Timur Bilyalov (from YouTube Sportsnet)

Is Bilyalov a Potential NHL Goalie?

Bilyalov isn’t a prototypical NHL goalie. He only stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 174 pounds. However, Bilyalov’s size hasn’t limited his KHL success. During the 2018-19 season, he had a .930 save percentage in 38 games for Riga Dynamo. During 2017-18, he had a .928 save percentage and played for both Khanty-Mansiysk and Ak Bars. In summary, he’s played well wherever he’s been in his three KHL seasons.

KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins knows Bilyalov well. He admitted that the young goalie really wanted to play in the NHL. In fact, “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.”

As a player, Kalnins described Bilyalov as a “quiet man” with a “tremendous work ethic.” Even better, he says that Bilyalov has “excelled in spite of the defenses he’s played behind.”

Kalnins added noted that Bilyalov was “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.”

Is Bilyalov in the Maple Leafs Future?

Although there was a lot of stir at the time and into February 2020, in April 2020, it was reported that, although Bilyalov had drawn a great deal of interest from NHL teams, he had chosen to re-sign with Ak Bars Kazan on a one-year deal. The reason? He wasn’t sure when the new NHL 2020-21 season would begin.

Although NHL’s top administration has worked hard to assure NHL fans that the 2020-21 season would not be cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bilyalov was one of a number of international players and college prospects who signed in Europe for next season because they were uncomfortable about the NHL’s unknown future.

Timur Bilyalov (from YouTube)

So, specifically, that puts Bilyalov outside the Maple Leafs plans – even though their two goalie prospects have had less than stellar seasons. Joseph Woll struggled with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, and Ian Scott had surgery to correct a hip issue and missed the entire season. Signing this young Russian goalie was something Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas might have jumped at.

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The future can never be known for certain; however, Bilyalov was specific that he hasn’t ruled out signing an NHL contract in the future. If (a) his stellar performances continue, (b) the NHL actually does play a 2020-21 season, and (c) if the Maple Leafs need a good goalie when Bilyalov’s KHL contract expires – can you imagine the interest generated in a goalie of his caliber?

Just thought I’d let Maple Leafs fans who might have forgotten the name Timur Bilyalov: he’s still around, but he re-signed in the KHL. But, perhaps a year from now …

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