From the legendary Vladislav Tretiak to Tampa Bay Lightning star Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Russians have been known to produce quality goalies spanning decades. Even more recently, they have been dominant at churning out elite prospects. Arguably three of the top goalie prospects in hockey are Russian, along with a potential top-15 pick in 2020, which is rare for the position.
Currently, five NHL teams employ a Russian goalie, three of which are starters (Sergei Bobrovsky, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Semyon Varlamov), a good backup option in Anton Khudobin, and an unknown rookie that overtook Henrik Lundqvist in Alexandar Georgiev.
Bobrovsky was the start of the new wave. He went undrafted and established himself as a high-end prospect playing for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL, leading to the Philadelphia Flyers giving him an entry-level contract (ELC). While he struggled to find his footing there, he broke out in his first season after being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he broke out with a .932 save percentage (SV%) in 38 games, narrowly missing the playoffs but doing enough to secure the Vezina Trophy. He then went on to win the trophy again in 2017, securing himself as one of the best goalies of his generation. This past summer, he signed a seven-year, $70-million contract with the Florida Panthers, making him the second-highest paid NHL goalie.
Vasilevskiy was the next star goalie to arrive. Drafted 19th-overall by the Lightning in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he has lived up to lofty expectations. The team eased the young Russian into the starter’s role after three seasons of backing up Ben Bishop, giving Vasilevskiy his opportunity to break out.
After being the Lightning’s starter for two seasons, this past season he elevated his game to the next level. While the Lightning were known for their stacked roster, he played a big part in why the team had a record season. Posting a .925 SV% and winning 39 of his 52 starts, he was awarded the Vezina Trophy. The Lightning then signed him to an extension worth $76 million over eight years. At 25 years old, he has yet to peak as a goalie and should see plenty more Vezina nominations throughout the years. He has potential to be among the greatest in his position.
The New York Rangers have a (good) problem on their hands. While Igor Shesterkin has been long-hailed as the “Prince” to replace Henrik “The King” Lundqvist, Georgiev has made a legitimate case for himself to dethrone the future Hall of Fame goalie. Initially a low-profile signing, he was playing for Turku TPS when the Rangers offered him an ELC in June 2017. While his roots can be traced back to Bulgaria, the 23-year-old represents Russia at international events, most recently in the IIHF World Championships.
He needs to work on the stiffness in his movement along with his reflexes to elevate his game to the next level, but he already possesses high-quality positioning and an understanding of his angles, which is rare for a young goalie, especially one that is new to the North American game.
Georgiev’s development took off the following season, partly due to the Rangers’ heralded goalie coach, Benoit Allaire. While he started off shaky in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack, possibly due to adjusting to the NHL rink size, he began to heat up mid-season, which earned him a call-up to New York. In his rookie campaign, he averaged a .918 SV% in 10 games. It was not until this past season where he showed potential to hold down a starting role. With a respectable .914 SV% in 33 contests, he overtook Lundqvist as the starter by the end of the season.
Georgiev is a few months younger than uber-prospect Shesterkin but is rated much lower than him by most. He looks to prove himself this season, in what should be an entertaining battle for the other goalie spot on the team. However, he will likely start in the NHL while Shesterkin gets assimilated to North American hockey. One way or another, the Rangers will have to make a decision before next offseason.
Russia has four goalie prospects with attainable elite potential. The three proven “I.S.” initialed prospects — Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Samsonov, and Ilya Sorokin — are all similarly ranked to the point of personal preference. These three prospects are likely found first, second, and third on any goalie prospect ranking in different orders. The fourth is a potential generational goalie who is projected as a potential top-15 pick, if not top-5. However, going top-10 even for a goalie is challenging, especially in a draft as stacked as 2020 looks.
As previously stated, Shesterkin was the obvious Lundqvist replacement until Georgiev came out of nowhere. Drafted in the 2014 fourth round by the Rangers, he had been dominating the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg until he was offered a two-year ELC this past May. Last season he led the KHL with a mind-blowing .953 SV% and averaged .935 in the two seasons prior.
He will have a tough time winning the open goalie position with the Rangers due to experience, so it’s likely he’ll see time in the AHL with the Wolf Pack. His diminutive stature for a goalie (6-foot-1) may be an issue, but is there anyone better to learn from than Lundqvist, who’s the same height, and Allaire? He is a supremely talented goalie who may have the quickest reflexes in his age group, another resemblance to “The King.” All signs point to him becoming the heir, but with Georgiev in contention, it won’t be easy. However, there’s reason to believe in Shesterkin.
Mikko Koskinen, another former SKA goalie who split starts with Shesterkin, struggled in his first year of play for the Edmonton Oilers. However, he is eight years Shesterkin’s senior and was outplayed by Shesterkin in his time at SKA. Koskinen was still somehow awarded a three-year deal with a $4.5-million cap hit. If anything, it highlights Shesterkin’s immense potential.
Selected 22nd overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Russian-savvy Capitals hope their first-round pick can follow in Vasilevskiy’s footsteps. The team’s star goalie, Braden Holtby, is an unrestricted free agent after this season and the cap-crunched Capitals may move on from the former Stanley Cup and Vezina winner.
While Samsonov likely will not be ready for starting duties, the Capitals may sign an experienced goalie to take most of the load. This would allow Samsonov to ease in as backup and eventually transition into a starter. Throughout 73 career KHL games, he averaged a .929 SV% along with a .920 SV% in 14 playoff games. At 6-foot-3, he has the elite athleticism and size needed for a goalie to flourish in the NHL.
While his .898 SV% in the AHL shows a goalie struggling to get accustomed, this is misleading. Truth is, Samsonov definitely stumbled out of the gate, but he picked up momentum as the season went along. Injuries to the Hershey Bears defense may not have helped, but he finished strong. His best stretch came towards the end of the season when he went nine games in which he averaged a .953 SV%. It was in those games where we saw a glimpse of his potential. He should be (much) better next season after adapting and could see some NHL action.
Sorokin will spend his career as a rival of close friend Shesterkin. Drafted a round earlier (third) by the New York Islanders, the two netminders began the friendly rivalry in the KHL with SKA and CSKA, respectively. While it looked like Sorokin was the better prospect after his draft-plus one year, Shesterkin quickly took the reigns from there. Sorokin’s development appeared stagnant after the 2017-18 season but he re-established himself last season. The 24-year-old will finish the last year of his contract with CSKA before presumably signing with the Islanders next offseason. While he has struggled a bit positionally, he also boasts incredible reflexes and athleticism.
On July 1, the Islanders signed Varlamov, another Russian, to a four-year, $20-million contract, opting to not bring back Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner. Lehner instead signed for one year and $5 million with the Chicago Blackhawks, which confused fans, but it could be better for the Islanders. Varlamov is represented by the same agent as Sorokin and the two are reportedly close. He has lengthy NHL experience and can be a valuable mentor. Expect Sorokin and Shesterkin to rekindle the rivalry in New York as early as the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 Draft-eligible goalie is only ranked fourth on draft lists due to being unproven. Goalies are voodoo and Askarov could join the list of hyped goalies who does not reach expectations. However, I’d put that possibility at a very low chance. He very well may be the best netminding prospect we have seen since Carey Price. He has been gaining steam since his impressive Hlinka Gretzky Tournament performance where posted a .960 SV% (tournament record) in four starts. Last season, with SKA-Varyagi of Russia’s junior league, the MHL, he posted a .921 SV%. This season, he’s expected to move up to the second-tier VHL, where he has impressed in preseason action. He is also a rare right-handed catching goalie prospect, which can catch shooters off guard.
He stands out as a goalie due to his freakishly poised manner in net. His anticipation coupled with his positioning give the opposition little room to work with. If he is caught out of position, his reflexes and athleticism make it easy to get back and make a desperation save. Askarov also seems to perform better under pressure, as he has shined at international tournaments. He has every gift a goalie desires, including high IQ, which makes him as an incredible prospect with franchise potential.
Goalies are tough to predict, which is why we don’t seem them regularly selected in the first round. But, when you churn out goalie prospects like Russia has, there is bound to be success in some. Along with the elite netminders above, Ilya Konovalov (85th overall, 2019, Edmonton Oilers), Pyotr Kochetkov (36th overall, 2019, Carolina Hurricanes), Mikhail Berdin (157th overall, 2016, Winnipeg Jets), and Ivan Prosvetov (114th overall, 2018, Arizona Coyotes) may also find themselves among this list with more seasoning. Russia has been able to produce quality goaltending along with skilled forwards for some time, now time to work on the defense, which can propel Russia into a top-two hockey nation.