That’s the last time a goalie was picked in the top ten of the NHL draft, with the Montreal Canadiens selecting Carey Price fifth overall. Fifteen years later and there’s a chance we see it happen again, even given the depth of high-end talent in the 2020 draft class.
Enter Yaroslav Askarov.
Yaroslav Askarov (G)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|SKA-Neva St. Petersburg||VHL||6'3"||176 lbs||9 - 14||#1 (Euro goalies)|
The consensus among scouts and analysts is that Askarov is the best goalie prospect of the past decade, bar none. While teams are generally hesitant with selecting goalie prospects in the first round, let alone the fifteen, Askarov looks to buck that trend in a similar way to how Spencer Knight bolstered himself to 13th overall a year ago.
Before we look at his track record, let’s start with the obvious — Askarov is a 6’3” goaltender who is of the rare breeds who catches with his right hand (Pavel Francouz was the only right catcher to play 30+ NHL games in 2019-20). His summer birthday puts him as one of the younger players in the draft class, having just turned 18 last week.
Askarov’s been lauded as a top prospect for a while, having played above his age ever since he entered Russia’s junior hockey system. As a 16-year-old in 2018-19 he was a starting goaltender in the MHL, a league occupied mostly by players age 18 to 20, while posting a 92.1% save percentage for 17th among goalies with 30+ games played.
He jumped straight into the VHL this past season, Russia’s secondary pro league after the KHL, where he helped lead St. Petersburg to a 3rd place league finish as their split starting goaltender. His 92.0% save percentage in 18 games was very consistent with the previous season, ranking 47th among goalies with 10+ games played.
It’s unheard of for a U18 goalie to play at all in VHL, with his 18 games beating Pyotr Kochetkov’s eight games from 2016-17 as the most in league history. He earned a single-game call-up to the KHL, which also made history as the fourth U18 goalie to make a KHL start. For what it’s worth he also stopped 23 of 25 shots.
Askarov’s international play has been consistently fantastic too, with one major exception. He was named the best goaltender at the U18 World Juniors as an underager, with his dismantling of last year’s stacked Team USA being a performance for the ages.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 season he also led Russia to gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, with a staggering 96.0% save percentage over the four games. Goal Perfetti and Team Canada were no match, as his performance was hands down the best showing in the tournament’s 21-year history.
The big exception was at the most recent U20 World Junior Championships, where Askarov buckled to the big stage with an 87.7% save percentage in five games. He was Russia’s starting goaltender to begin the tournament, but by the time the silver medal was around his neck it was Amir Miftakhov holding down the crease. It’s a big blemish, especially for scouts who tend to put weight on these best-on-best tournaments. But it’s also his only blemish over the last few seasons, so consider it just a piece of the much larger puzzle.
First off, I’m not a scout in general, but I’m particularly awful a goalie scouting. Unlike previous reports where I’ve been able to inject some opinion based on my own viewings, this report is based entirely on synthesizing the work of experts. Specifically, I’d recommend reading Catherine Silverman’s piece in the McKeen’s 2020 Draft Guide ($), and TPEHockey’s thorough breakdown on Beer League Heroes (it’s a year old but the points still stand). TPEHockey also talked about Askarov on an episode of Draft Debaters which you can listen to here.
Often goalie prospects can be characterized by their flaws — the need to improve their puck tracking, their glove hand, their lateral movement, etc. What makes Askarov such an appealing goalie prospect is his lack of flaws, as he checks every box that most goalie scouts tend to look for.
First and most importantly is his movement. He’s able to explode from one post to another, as his refined skating technique gives him ample power whether he’s in the butterfly or at a standstill. It’s made him nearly unstoppable in the shootout as he can react quickly with efficient movement.
His puck tracking is also fantastic, with sound technical abilities to keep himself square to the puck and make quick decisions on smothering rebounds. I’ve seen him described as “jittery” and “jumpy” with the way he’s constantly adjusting his lower body and quickly surveying his surroundings. Some of that turned into fidgeting which is what some believe contributed to his poor World Juniors performance. But ultimately, the fact that Askarov is both technically proficient and has high-end athletic abilities is what makes him such a stand-out prospect.
If you thought data was limited for skater prospects, there’s even less to work with for goaltenders. Askarov is a particularly difficult prospect too because his route to the draft has zero comparables due to him going straight to the VHL as a 17-year-old.
The best we have to go with is save percentage, which although lacks plenty of contextual factors, can be a decent indicator of success if a goalie consistently puts up good results. Askarov has saved at least 92% of shots faced in every league he’s played in over the last two seasons as an underager, and has put up even better results in international play minus the World Juniors. Very few goalie prospects over the past decade can lay claim to that kind of track record, which has only increased the confidence in scouts that Askarov can one day play in the NHL.
Technically speaking, Askarov has what it takes to one day be an elite NHL goaltender. But taking a step back, it’s worth remembering why it’s so rare for goalies to be drafted high in the first place.
The phrase “goalies are voodoo” has been a hotly debated topic since the dawn of the sport, and in this case it begs the question: is it worth drafting goalies with high picks if their outcomes are seemingly impossible to predict? It came up lots when the Panthers took a swing on Knight, and now we’re seeing it again with Askarov.
The website Smaht Scouting ran a roundtable with various scouts who unanimously declared that goalies are in fact not voodoo, with some chiming in that it’s just a market inefficiency that teams have yet to really figure out. TPEHockey had another article that built off this point as well, looking at cases in the past where high goalie picks didn’t pan out. The conclusion was that most busts could be explained by the fact that they either had an overvalued season in the CHL, or overperformed during international events.
Askarov doesn’t tick either of those boxes, so it’d seem we’re in the clear on his high NHL potential. While there is definitely merit to the fact that teams have long been subpar at identifying goaltending talent, I think we also need to re-assess what to expect when we say a goaltender has an ‘elite’ ceiling.
Using the Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) model for goalies from Evolving-Hockey.com, we can split up goalies into categories based on their SPAR rank for a particular season. If they’re in the top 30/31, they had a starter-caliber season. I’ll also be using the top 15 to symbolize an above-average season for a starting goaltender.
Using SPAR to measure the consistency of goaltenders, the results are staggering. If you take the list of above-average starters from the past three seasons, there is zero overlap. Put another way, not a single above-average starter was able to transition that ability into any of the other two seasons. Goalie performances just fluctuate that much.
Using the entire SPAR database going back 2007-08, it becomes even clearer how rare it is to find a goalie who can be a consistent above-average starter, let alone one near the very top of the list. If you take every single ten year stretch and look at the amount of times a goalie was an above-average starter, there’s only one occasion where the goalie managed to hit that mark at least 8/10 times: Henrik Lundqvist. Even the greats of the decade such as Jonathan Quick (7), Carey Price (6) and Tuukka Rask (5) haven’t been able to show a strong degree of consistency as an above-average starting goalie.
When we’re dreaming of what we want in an elite goaltender, we need to dampen our expectations — NHL goalies just tend to have far less consistent results than skaters. Even the Vezina favourites of this past season are far from guarantees to continue their level of play into the next season, whereas you can still expect the top skaters to be elite in one, two or more years down the road.
I’ve added this to the Drawbacks section because that’s ultimately what’s holding Askarov back from being selected over the top skaters. Being a goalie means his ceiling is innately not as high, which should play a major factor in assessing whether to draft him.
Between all the high-end talent we’ve seen emerge from the 2020 NHL draft class, it’s a true testament to Askarov that he’s managed to keep himself this high in the conversation despite facing all the skepticism as a goaltender.
The Ottawa Senators are in a transitional phase with their goaltending situation — their all-time best netminder Craig Anderson is on the verge of retirement, and although Anders Nilsson and Marcus Högberg have had solid stretches, it’s still a major question as to whether either can serve as the heir to Anderson’s throne. They have a number of interesting prospects in the cupboard between Joey Daccord, Filip Gustavsson, Kevin Mandolese and last year’s second round pick Mads Søgaard, although only Daccord appears anywhere close to NHL action at this point.
Now the weight lies on the teams. Will a franchise in need of a long-term goaltending solution step forward and make the gamble? Or will the skepticism of goalies continue to permeate the draft table? We’ll just have to wait until the draft to find out.
Where some might levy criticism against Askarov in the NHL draft is in his depth, purely because he plays such an aggressive starting position while getting reps overseas in Russia. But in international competition, when he’s had to play on smaller ice surfaces; he’s managed to adjust perfectly. His situational awareness in and around the blue paint is spectacular, and it suggests that a transition to North America when he so chooses won’t be nearly as tough as it potentially could be for someone who profiles similarly.
Add in some top-tier lower body agility and fast, effective hands, and it’s easy to find one’s self mesmerized by Askarov’s game.
“His athleticism is exemplary, allowing him to explode post-to-post, shoot out to challenge shooters and quickly spring back up from the butterfly to his stance. Due to his size and ability, he covers a lot of the net naturally and make it difficult for shooters to find open net. His form and reflexes are all stellar, allowing him to stop shots from any angle that he faces square. Pucks simply just don’t go through him, over him or under him.”
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