Ilya Samsonov has cleared waivers and Dennis Hildeby has been recalled as the Maple Leafs enter 2024 with an NHL goaltending tandem (Martin Jones – Hildeby) few would’ve ever anticipated.

Samsonov remaining in the organization does not clear the full $3.55 million in cap space for the Leafs, only the buriable portion of $1.15 million. But there isn’t a goalie talent with Samsonov’s upside and recent track record of success in the league — including his performance in last year’s playoffs before the injury — available readily to the team without forfeiting assets via trade. The one-year term on Samsonov’s contract means that if it doesn’t turn around for him in the next few months, the Leafs can probably open up the extra couple of million in dead cap space by trading him if needed before the deadline without incurring too much of a cost.

Looking at the big picture with a cool head, as hard as it became to watch in his recent starts, keeping Samsonov in the organization, with the institutional memory of his particular game and mental makeup and a tailored plan already in place to rebuild him, is the preferable situation.

There is the ideal scenario where Joseph Woll — who has been great in the NHL so far but has played 26 total NHL games and has a long injury rap sheet — returns from injury and stays healthy without missing a beat, Martin Jones continues to provide a steady/competent veteran hand in goal when called on, and maybe even young Dennis Hildeby shows himself ready/capable as another option. But in this mix, there is still a plausible scenario wherein Samsonov is very much needed again eventually if he can snap out of his current funk, which has to be kept in mind has been all of 15 games long in terms of total starts this season.

The Hildebeast joins the NHL roster

By Mark Rackham

Dennis Hildeby reaped the benefits of an elongated off-season this past summer.

The Swedish netminder made his AHL debut last April against Utica and was shelled for five goals on 42 shots, although little blame could be laid at his feet. His next appearance eight days later in relief of Keith Petruzzelli was no better as Belleville scored three against him on 11 shots. As terrible as the Marlies were last season, routinely providing their goaltenders with little support, it provided a harsh look at life between the pipes in North America.

Toronto failed to qualify for the AHL playoffs, and it was thought best that Hildeby took no part in the most recent rookie tournament, but he returned to North America early to fully acclimate himself to the differences between European hockey and the AHL/NHL. The goaltender’s work with Jon Elkin (formerly part of Toronto’s Goaltender Evaluation and Development setup) through the summer has paid dividends.

Hildeby posted 26 and 23-save shutouts in just his third and fourth start to send an early statement to Toronto’s brass. His .919 save percentage is seventh-best in the American League, although I wouldn’t cling too heavily to the statistics at this stage — especially given Toronto’s inconsistent performances and defensive breakdowns, often leading to lopsided games in terms of scoring chances.

The two most noticeable aspects of Hildeby’s game are using his big frame to good effect and his composure. I’ve yet to see him rattled, even against teams who set out to unsettle a young goaltender. He’s allowed a couple of “soft” goals in recent starts but hasn’t let that affect him for the remainder of the game.

Hildeby keeps his movements to a minimum, and with sound positioning plus a degree of patience, he fills the net with sheer size (6’7).

Due to the Marlies‘ defensive issues rearing their head more than they should, the Swedish native has shown off his ability to reject opponents on breakaways. He’s the perfect mix of aggressive without overplaying it, and I cannot remember the last time Hildeby was scored on in a one-on-one situation.

The 22-year-old isn’t shy in handling the puck outside of the crease, and this might be one aspect of his game to be reined in slightly against higher-level opposition. The time and space afforded in the AHL won’t be so freely available at the NHL level.

Hildeby has made huge strides this season and is a goaltender full of confidence. I doubt he will feel overwhelmed by the prospect of making his NHL debut, but of course, it has to be kept firmly in mind that he is still a rookie with just 45 games played at the pro level.

Based on Sheldon Keefe’s comments today, we’ll have to wait and see if Wednesday in Anaheim will mark the Swede’s NHL debut or if Martin Jones will take both starts in the back-to-back in California.