You’ve likely heard the phrase “goaltenders are voodoo”, and for good reason. It’s the toughest position to scout. For every Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price – the goalies that lived up to the hype after getting selected early in the draft – there’s a Jamie Storr, Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya. Just for perspective, 22 goalies went in the first round from 2000-09 compared to seven over the next 10 years – and not a single one in the top 10.
So where does Yaroslav Askarov land?
I was recently asked on the daily show Gouche Live – a show I produced during my time at The Hockey News and still follow each day – if Askarov was the real deal. Besides, there’s a “big-name” goalie in each draft: last year, Spencer Knight became the touted goalie of the future for the Florida Panthers. Teams have typically veered clear of goaltenders in the first round in recent years – Spencer Knight to Florida at No. 13 was a bit of an oddity, with no goalie landing in the first round in 2018. Jake Oettinger was the lone netminder chosen in the first round in 2017 but there’s more hype for the likes of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Michael DiPietro and Cayden Primeau (a seventh-round pick) these days.
But if the 2020 draft was to commence today, there’s a very high chance that Askarov would be a top 10 pick. In other years, perhaps top five. That’s high praise for a young kid in a position where what you expect when you draft there rarely turns out to be a reality.
So what makes Askarov the “big-game” goaltender we’ve been talking about for the past few years? The “Dream Killer”, as my former colleague Ryan Kennedy dubbed him, was a standout at the 2018 Hlinka Memorial, leading his team to a bronze with a handful of incredible performances, highlighted by a 35-save shutout at the hands of the cantonment hosts from the Czech Republic (keep in mind, he was 16 at the time). A few months later, he was named to the U-17 World Hockey Challenge’s all-star team after one of the best outings seen out of a goaltender in recent years, posting a tournament-best 1.40 GAA and .948 SP en route to a gold. He capped off the dream season with a silver medal and top goaltender honors at the U-18 World Championship, giving Russia its best chance at the top podium spot despite facing a high-power Swedish offense in the final. Cap it off with a gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky last summer where he outperformed his performance from a year prior and you have a resume built on winning and leading his team to glory.
And before you say “it’s Russia, they’re always good,” it’s worth noting that it’s not a power-rich group this year. Askarov could end up being the only Russian taken in the top 15, and Rodion Amirov and Vasily Pomomaryov (playing in Quebec) could end up being the only others taken in the first round. Askarov continuously did a lot for a group that wasn’t high on star power, and he was rewarded a spot as Russia’s starting goaltender to kick off the 2020 World Junior Championship as a result. He struggled, but keep in mind the fact that he was playing against guys two years further down the development cycle. If, out of everything, that’s the only true black mark on his international CV, that’s quite fine.
I haven’t even gotten into his league exploits yet. Askarov made his KHL with SKA St. Petersburg this season at 17 and handled the pressure admirably in a 23-save victory over Sochi. Add in fantastic numbers in the VHL, the second-tier Russian league, and you’ve got someone performing at a high level before most kids his age get a taste above junior hockey. Overall, his stats outshine those from Vasilevskiy and Ilya Samsonov – considered two of the best Russian goaltenders to get selected from the past 20 years – at the same age.
Style-wise, Askarov has perfect NHL size at 6-foot-3 and his right glove hand is a tricky one to beat. Askarov has impressive rebound control and moves fluently post-to-post with minimal hiccups. Let in a bad goal? Askarov can bounce back and play his best hockey in the minutes after. He often gets aggressive with his poke check but can move quick enough to make up for a miscue. You’ll often hear that a goalie battles hard and doesn’t give up on a play, but he guards his net like it’s his kid: he’ll do whatever it takes to protect a lead and has the proper headspace to remain calm.
“Teams are always looking for goalies with a big-game mentality. Someone who takes every game like their job is on the line. Someone who can give his club a fighting chance, regardless of the game,” a scout told me last week. “Askarov exemplifies that better than anyone in recent draft classes.”
“How does that compare to someone like Carter Hart?” I asked.
“Hart is special, but Askarov is going to be Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy-level good,” the scout replied. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he gives an NHL team a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup by the time he’s 22.”
Only five goalies 22 or under played an NHL game in 2019-20, and Hart and Washington’s Ilya Samsonov were the only ones to play more than 10 games. But it wasn’t that long ago that 21-year-old Matt Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup – and then a second Cup the following year. But for every Murray and Jordan Binnington, you’re looking at the Corey Crawford’s, the Tim Thomas’ and Jonathan Quick’s of the world.
So could Askarov do it? He’ll likely land on a team in much poorer standing than Pittsburgh was when they chose Murray 83rd overall in 2012, but it’s not out of the question. Again, Askarov has a reputation as guy capable of winning important games, and if he makes his full-time KHL debut next season and finds a way to shine, it’s not out of the question. That’s just projecting, but the fact that that’s even being talked about at a point like this for a draft with no current date says just how optimistic scouts are about Askarov’s game.
Heck, I’m ready to declare that Askarov will win the Vezina Trophy one day. I’m simply THAT confident in Askarov. Call it a hunch if you will, but I can’t recall a time I was this excited about a goaltending prospect. Now it’s up to Askarov to prove me – and many others – correct.
To go back to the lede, goaltenders are challenging to predict, and a large reason why is ice time. Askarov could have received more KHL backup opportunities with other organizations, but he’s aligned with one of the best in the country. SKA hasn’t rushed him and has given him chances to play at a high level without exhausting his development. But he is still just 18, and goaltenders have a lot of development to go. The KHL isn’t known to be kind to young prospects, no matter the skill level. Just ask Vasily Podkolzin what he thinks about his ice time this year. Igor Shestyorkin and Ilya Sorokin are two examples of highly touted goaltending prospects that followed the slow, but steady path, and both are set to make the NHL look silly next season. But neither prospect, despite how good they were at 18, drew as much interest at Askarov, and his ability to outshine older competition on a weekly basis can’t be ignored.
Of course, top goaltenders each year earn that distinction for a reason – and typically, that’s because they’re dominant. But being a dominant major junior goaltender is much different than being a strong contender in European pro, and, in many cases, prepares players better than in North America based on the competition level. Askarov still has a long way to go, but if he comes roaring out of the gate in the KHL, it’ll further add to the narrative of Askarov stepping up when the stakes get higher.
Usually, teams avoid goaltenders early due to their unpredictable nature. In this case, the only reason he won’t go early is because of just how deep the top 10 is shaping up to be in 2020. Price was the last goaltender to go in the top 10 and while it’s not a far cry to think that Jesper Wallstedt could reach that territory in 2021, the fact that Askarov could break that streak is quite telling. Even if Askarov falls down to 20th, that won’t be a knock on his skill. Teams know what they’re capable of, and there’s no shortage of clubs looking for the goaltender of the future.
So time to make way for future Vezina Trophy winner Yaroslav Askarov. Hold me to that assertion.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.