Goaltenders are tricky to evaluate, especially young ones. Last year, the Florida Panthers selected the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick. Knight has looked great in the NCAA, but we are still years away from knowing whether he will eventually live up to his status as a first-rounder, especially with Sergei Bobrovsky locked up for another six years.
In the 21st century, a total of 29 goalies have heard their name called in the first round of the NHL Draft. There is a clear discrepancy however, if you change the narrative and split the century into two decades. Between 2000 and 2009, NHL franchises selected a whopping 22 goaltenders in round one, with eight going in the top 10 and three within the first three picks overall. During this last decade, we saw only seven in the first round. The number of goalie selections in the top 10? Zero.
The highest selected goalie of the decade was new Toronto Maple Leafs backup Jack Campbell, selected at number 11 by the Dallas Stars in 2010, followed by the aforementioned Knight from yesteryear. If we add the Tampa Bay Lightning’s selection of Andrei Vasilevskiy to the mix, we have already named all of the goalies selected with a top-20 pick dating back to 2009.
If there is ever another goaltender selected in the top 10 of the draft, he will be the first one since the Montreal Canadiens selected a certain Carey Price fifth overall in 2005.
Scouts claim that this year’s draft has a goalie prospect who is perhaps the best one we have seen in at least a decade. His name is Yaroslav Askarov, and he plays regularly for SKA Saint Petersburg’s affiliate, SKA-Neva, in the VHL, the second tier of the Russian hockey system.
Birthplace: Omsk, Russia
Date of birth: June 16, 2002
Weight: 176 lbs.
Team: SKA-Neva Saint Petersburg
Born in June of 2002, he has already been called up to make his debut in the KHL, and he did so without a problem, posting a .920 save percentage and conceding two goals in his only game so far.
His draft stock was elevated to its current high level after a dominant performance at last year’s World Under-18 Championship, where he almost single-handedly stopped a highly-touted American team featuring six forwards who became first-round draft picks later that summer. He made 40 saves in that game and won his team a place in the Gold Medal Game with an equally dominant effort in the following shootout. Russia may have lost to Sweden, but Askarov had certainly made an impression on the scouting community.
He continued to showcase his skills with an even more impressive performance during the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup. He finished with the best statistics of any goaltender in the history of the tournament, with a save percentage of .960 and a 1.25 goals-against average.
Askarov is a butterfly-style 6’3” goalie with extraordinary reflexes. He has a first-class glove hand — his right hand, which is less common for NHL netminders. His top-level anticipation and mobility have made him a talented tracker of pucks, with him being in the right place whenever the shot arrives. His placement and movement skills are utterly refined for a 17-year-old as he uses his explosiveness to get into the right stance for the save. He is also considered to be mentally strong and has demonstrated among his peers that he has the capability of being a true game-changing talent.
Analysts claim that his biggest deficiency thus far in his young career is his tendency to go down early and leave parts of the upper area of the goal unprotected. He has also been beaten between the body and his arm relatively often.
According to Scott Wheeler of The Athletic, Askarov has a jittery lower body and is jumping up and down in his stance during games. This is apparently a way for the young goaltender to maintain his focus. It may look unorthodox, but should not be a major cause for concern. He is incredibly polished for his age and should only get better, considering he is still just 17 years old.
When Patrik Bexell and I made a podcast previewing this year’s WJC, we agreed that Askarov was a talent beyond the typical calibre at his position. Ironically, that tournament was the only time where he has looked shaky — human — against his peers. He was pulled in the opener against the Czech Republic after conceding three goals on a limited number of shots. After briefly retaking his position as the starter, he was once again pulled in the semifinal and eventually ended up benched in favour of Amir Miftakhov in the Gold Medal Game against Canada. Askarov left the tournament with a save percentage of .877 and a GAA of 2.71, several levels below what he has demonstrated elsewhere in his career.
Future Considerations: #11
Hockey Prospect: #5
ISS Hockey: #1 (Goalies)
McKeen’s Hockey: #12
NHL Central Scouting: #1 (EU goalies)
Out of the 29 goalies selected in the first round, three have been Russians. How does Askarov hold up against his fellow countrymen who have already been in his current position? Let us compare the stats to answer the question why Askarov is more highly touted than his predecessors:
We can see that he is the only one who played major-league hockey in the year leading up to the draft, albeit in the second tier. He and Vasilevskiy were the only two who played regularly for the U20s on the international stage instead of the more age-appropriate U18s. Vasilevskiy did, however, post the superior numbers for Russia, if we compare the two.
If we instead consider what they have accomplished for their top-league squad, Samsonov and Askarov are the only two to have made their debut in the KHL before being drafted. While Samsonov posted a .500 save percentage in his brief stint, Askarov looked more comfortable.
There is a clear narrative against taking a goaltender with your first-round draft pick. Comparing the careers of Riku Helenius, Al Montoya, and Pascal Leclaire with those of Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, and Dominik Hasek points to how difficult it is to evaluate the pro-level potential of an 18-year-old goalie. There is also the question as to whether even a Vezina-calibre goaltender is valuable enough to be picked near the top of the draft. As Canadiens fans, we have seen that it is not enough to have a world-class netminder if you don’t surround him with defensive aid. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Russian goalies drafted in the first round have all made it to the NHL and made an impact. Even if the jury is still out on young Samsonov, he looks poised to be the Capitals goaltender of the future.
Based on true talent, Yaroslav Askarov is as good as it gets. Nobody can deny that his potential is to become one of the world’s best at his position. The only question will be when a team will pull the trigger. Will the Senators use one of their top-five-picks on a goalie for the future? Or will perhaps the New Jersey Devils draft their long awaited heir to Martin Brodeur? My not-so-hot take for this draft is that we indeed will see a goaltender selected in the top 10 for the first time since Montreal shocked everyone by taking Carey Price.