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TORONTO — Dennis Hildeby has come a long way in a little more than a year, professionally and geographically.
The goalie was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fourth round (No. 122) of the 2022 NHL Draft, his fourth year of NHL draft eligibility. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract July 13.
He then left his hometown of Jarfalla, Sweden, about 15 miles north of Stockholm, to attend Maple Leafs development camp in Toronto from July 17-22.
“There’s been a lot of stuff happening this year,” Hildeby said. “A lot of exciting stuff and taking big steps from where I was one year ago.
“I think Toronto is one of the biggest teams in the world with their history, being an Original Six team. I’m very, very honored to be part of this organization.”
A year ago Hildeby (6-foot-5, 209 pounds) was still recovering from surgery on his hips, in March, 2021, and May, 2021.
He said the procedures increased his flexibility and decreased pain he was feeling.
“I believe it was pretty usual injury for goalies. It’s something you can’t really do anything about. It’s bone growing on your hip I guess, so it doesn’t move properly. It starts to get irritated and hurt and your flexibility gets downgraded.”
Hildeby began last season with Farjestad’s team in the Swedish junior league, his fifth season in the under-20 league. But he played well enough to earn promotion to the Swedish Hockey League, and made his debut with Farjestad on Jan. 6. In seven games he was 3-2-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and one shutout.
“Coming back from my two hip surgeries, I had no plans on playing in the SHL six months later,” he said. “When the opportunity came, I felt no pressure. I played four and a half seasons in the same junior league which is way more than most people do, so I got the chance to develop in a calm environment where I felt good.”
Hildeby started playing goalie full time at age 9, shortly after his cousin, who played goalie growing up, inspired him to try the position. The pressure of the position is something he’s grown to love.
“They pushed me to try it and I tried it and I got more compliments playing goalie than playing out so it was more fun,” he said. “You have to like the pressure somehow of being a goalie. There’s a lot of pressure put on you and there’s also a benefit of being a hero every game.”
Hildeby made sure to watch as many NHL games as he could growing up, especially games involving the New York Rangers.
“Coming from Sweden, Henrik Lundqvist was the top guy that I always watched when I was younger,” Hildeby said. “He was the top guy, so he was the guy when I first started watching that I followed. I just loved his compete level.
“I haven’t met him. It would be nice.”
The Maple Leafs intend to have Hildeby play in the SHL this season before bringing him to North America.
“For goaltenders, as we see in the NHL now, there’s not a lot of elite, elite, No. 1 goaltenders,” Maple Leafs assistant general manager of player development Hayley Wickenheiser said. “It takes time and they need to face a lot of different situations to develop. With the goaltending situation that we have here in Toronto, Sweden is probably the best place for him to go play, get confidence, dominate and then come in and challenge for a spot when he’s ready.
“He’s a very big boy out on the ice; when he’s on his knee his head is over the crossbar. So there’s a lot to like about him with just the poise and control he seems to have.”
Hildeby agrees with the Maple Leafs’ plan for him. He’s been comfortable with a slow path in his development to this point.
“I think (the Maple Leafs and I) pretty well have the same idea of what is best for my development and I believe going back to Sweden is a wise choice to make.”
Photos courtesy: Colin McBride/Toronto Maple Leafs
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