Remember the 2020 NHL Entry Draft? No? With the 2021 NHL season fast approaching and this year coming to a merciful close in just a few weeks, I don’t blame you if you don’t. But what seems like it happened a lifetime ago was actually held just over two months ago, on October 6th-7th of this year. And while first-overall pick of the New York Rangers Alexis Lafreniere stole the spotlight, there were other notable young hockey players chosen at this draft, too. However, only one of the first thirty-one players taken in the first round happened to be a goaltender: Yaroslav Askarov. So without further ado, let’s meet the new Nashville Predators draft pick, shall we?
Yaroslav Askarov was the first goalie taken in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Coincidentally, he was also the only goalie taken in the entirety of the first round of the draft. While it’s certainly not uncommon for the first goalie to be picked later on after a strong class of forwards and defensemen have been selected, it’s quite impressive that Askarov managed to both be the only goalie picked on night number one of the draft, and that he went in the first third of the round, at the 11 spot.
Askarov is an 18-year old, six-foot-four Russian goaltender, hailing from his hometown of Omsk and wearing his catching glove on his right hand (I love to see right-catching goalies). The new Nashville Predators goalie accomplished a league feat by being selected, as being chosen at 11th overall, he became the highest-drafted Russian-born goaltender in NHL history.
The previous high was 19th overall, a position held by Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. Considering Vasy just captured the Stanley Cup a few months ago, that’s not bad company to hold.
Perhaps more impressive is just how much Askarov stood out being chosen so early in the draft: the next goaltender wasn’t taken until mid-second round at 46th overall, when the Chicago Blackhawks selected American goaltender Drew Commesso from the U.S. NDTP in the USHL.
“I feel joy and happiness, and still can’t understand what just happened . . . Every kid has dreams and goals, and I was one of them,” said Askarov, of being drafted into the NHL. “When I started to play hockey, I was dreaming about the NHL and today is the first step to make it real.”
Only six Russian goalies have ever been chosen in the first round of the NHL draft. Three of them have come in the past decade: Vasilevskiy in 2012, Ilya Samsonov (WSH) in 2015, and of course, Yaroslav Askarov. It would appear that Russian hockey is trending in the direction of producing elite goaltenders, positioning the hockey powerhouse to compete with traditional goalie producers like Finland.
The Predators have been blessed with elite goaltending themselves, having Pekka Rinne on their roster for his whole career, and being treated to the level of play that he brings to the table. But if he’s been so good for them, why did they draft another potential franchise goalie?
“[Askarov] is an elite, elite prospect,” says Predators Assistant General Manager Jeff Kealty.
“The talent level and the athleticism stand out right away. We compare his athleticism to that of Pekka Rinne or (Los Angeles Kings goalie) Jonathan Quick, and he’s mature beyond his years in terms of his compete level and mental makeup.”
“We believe he was the best player available, and if you have a franchise goaltender on your hands, which we do believe he will be, you’re in a very good situation.”
Despite the high praise from Preds management, is being given the “best player available” at the time of your first-round pick enough to justify taking that player, even if you already have an immediate solution at that position?
If not, maybe believing your current starter is at the tail end of his career might be.
Pekka Rinne is 38-years old, and is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after next season. Juuse Saros, his younger but very capable backup, becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) after next season. And the uncertainty between the pipes has already been looming, long before Askarov pulled on his Preds sweater.
Toward the end of the 2019-20 NHL season, Juuse Saros took the reins as the number one goaltender from Pekka Rinne, as Rinne struggled to play at a high level during the year. The 25-year old Saros went 12-5-1 with a 2.21 GAA and .934 SV%, plus four shutouts in his last 20 games (18 starts) of the regular season.
In a series loss to the Arizona Coyotes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, he has a 3.22 GAA and .895 SV% through four games.
Since the 2008-09 season, Rinne had sat uncontested as Nashville’s go-to guy in goal. In his last 11 starts of the 2019-20 season, though, he showed glaring signs of decline, as he went 4-6-1 with a 3.59 GAA and .895 SV%.
He finished the campaign with a record of 18-4-4, a 3.17 GAA, .895 SV%, and three shutouts in 36 games (35 starts).
“[Rinne and Saros] are experienced guys,” said Askarov, when asked about his thoughts on his new goalie partners – and new competition in goal. “I’ll be happy to practice and play with them someday. I look forward to learning something from them and will be excited to meet them and see how the NHL works.”
Askarov went on to say:
“I don’t feel [nervous] right now, maybe I will when I have to go to North America, but I’m just happy. I’m very confident about myself and not nervous. I look forward to playing my game.”
He’ll have some time to do that, as he remains under contract to SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL through the 2021 season. Askarov spent most of his season in Russia’s minor league last year with the VHL’s SKA-Neva St. Petersburg, and was 12-3-3 with a 2.45 GAA and .920 SV% in 18 games. He appeared in three KHL games, going 2-1-0 and posting a 0.74 GAA, .974 SV%, and one shutout.
He’s set to get much more playing time in the big leagues over in Russia this season. In fact, he already has, as their hockey season is well underway.
All numbers and stats aside, just what kind of goalie is Yaroslav Askarov? The consensus biggest boon to Askarov’s game has been his stance and his movements. Askarov stands out because of his size, but also because of how he manages his depth during different situations during games. Like many Russian goalies, he utilizes a wide stance, and relies on high reaction speed to make big, reactionary saves on high-probability scoring chances. It’s also pretty difficult to pull him out of position, and even if you managed to do that, his recovery is quick enough to combat it.
“[He’s] just all the things that you look for in a modern-day goaltender,” said Jeff Kealty, Nashville’s Assistant GM. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive, he reads the play extremely well. He’s a guy that’s been on our radar for quite a while, and we really feel he fits the bill as a franchise goaltender.”
The Predators organization haven’t been the only ones to throw praise at the young goalie. NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr had this to say about Askarov:
“[He] is always impacting games . . . He’s a difference maker that loves the challenge of big games. His size, quickness and recovery are exceptional, he tracks the play well and holds his position in the net. He never gives up on a play and loses focus.”
“He’s the real deal,” said Marr.
The Nashville Predators have not been able to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since reaching the Final back in 2017, when they came oh, so close, but lost in six games to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2018, they exited the second round in a loss to the Division rival Winnipeg Jets, and last season, fell to the Dallas Stars in the first round.
Yaroslav Askarov is no stranger to putting up clutch performances, as he has led Russian national teams to six top-three finishes in international competition. His proven track record of winning gives Preds fans all the more reason to be excited about their future goaltender.