One of the bigger surprises in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft was the pick of a goaltender at the 11th spot by the Nashville Predators. Only one year prior, the Florida Panthers selected another extremely talented goaltender in Spencer Knight, who made his NHL debut in the 2020-21 season. He even got a couple of playoff games under his belt. Yaroslav Askarov is entirely different from Knight in a multitude of ways. He has yet to grace NHL ice, he’s Russian, and the most tangible is his electricity in and around the crease area. It will be Knight vs. Askarov comparisons for years to come, but today we’re going to focus on the latter player.
Askarov is one of the youngest goalies ever to start and win in a KHL game. At the young age of 17 years old, he played his first KHL game for SKA St. Petersburg, and ended with two goals against and a .920 save percentage (SV%). He posted a 2.45 goals-against average (GAA) in 18 VHL games with the same SV%, but his World Junior Championship appearance was less than ideal. In five games, he ended with a 2.71 GAA and .877 SV%. There were some doubts about his ability to perform against top players outside of the Russian leagues. Those doubts seemed misplaced at the time and still are today.
This past season, Askarov played most of his games in the KHL and did not disappoint. In nine games, he posted a 1.21 GAA with an astounding .951 SV%. To do that in what most consider to be the second-best professional league in the world at a ripe 18 years old is ridiculous. In six VHL games, he had a 2.12 GAA and .923 SV%, and in the two MHL regular-season games he played, he posted a 0.50 GAA and .971 SV%. In the World Juniors, with an unsound defensive Russian team, he managed to improve his numbers. While he did show some weaknesses, a 2.50 GAA and .914 SV% are pretty impressive.
The final stat I’ll present before diving into the details of Askarov’s game is his ridiculous performance at the Karjala Cup, a three-game tournament between the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. However, the one difference between those other three teams and Russia was the ages of the players. The Russians sent their U20 team to compete against the men, and they swept the tournament to take the gold. Askarov was the backbone of the thrashing, as he posted a 0.98 GAA and .962 SV%.
Of course, it is crucial to recognize that these crazy numbers come in small sample sizes. Still, it shouldn’t take away from his performances against players significantly older than him or at the same talent level.
Now, we can dive into the things that make Askarov the exceptional goalie that he is. The first item on the agenda is the glaring athleticism that he possesses. There are a lot of athletic goalies around the NHL. The first two that come to mind are Jonathan Quick and Andrei Vasilevskiy. At a rather large 6-foot-4, his athleticism and lateral movement are easily the two best parts of his game. He barely gets beat down low because of his athletic nature and butterfly-style goaltending. Just watch his lateral movement in this shootout clip, where he moves with the shooter going to the right.
Here’s another clip showing his ridiculous lateral movement. Askarov comes out and makes a bad read on a puck, makes the initial save, gives up a massive rebound, but is large enough and strong enough to push to the opposite post and make the save.
Askarov’s aggressive goaltending nature, which I’ll touch on later, paired with his size, helps limit the shooter’s vision and forces them to try and shoot it five-hole. In this clip, the shooter has no other option but to throw it at his five-hole, which doesn’t work.
Another strong area of play for the young goaltender is his puck-playing ability. His urge to play the puck consistently is one that Predators fans have seen before in Pekka Rinne. Not only is he willing to play the puck, but he’s excellent at understanding where the puck needs to go and how to play the bounces off the boards. In this clip, Askarov anticipates the play, comes way out of his net and makes beautiful stretch passes to the forward.
The way Askarov thinks the game and can pick apart plays at even strength and on the penalty kill is some of the best I’ve seen from a goaltender in my years of watching hockey. Some mental lapses occur periodically, but it’s important to remember that he’s just a kid. Most goalies don’t mature and hit their primes until their early to mid-20s, so to see him thinking the game at such a high level at his age is an encouraging sign.
Askarov has all the tools that scouts and fans love to see. He has athleticism, size, flare, and he shows a love of the game. He’s a fast learner just by looking at the differences between his first World Junior appearance and his second. He has shown many signs of maturity in the net, which should continue for a long time to come.
While much of the stuff Askarov does at 18 is impressive, it’s clear that he still has his flaws. The one that is the most noticeable is his over-aggressiveness in and around the blue paint. In one of the clips above, he overplayed a puck, and it put him out of position for the next save. It’s something that scouts have expressed their concerns with regarding his game. The one thing that comes with his over-aggressiveness is his feet and moving incessantly in the crease. He’s one of the most jittery goaltenders the hockey world has seen. When he’s facing breakaways, his glove is constantly moving, and his feet never seem to stay still. This goal against by Connor McMichael (WSH) is the perfect example of his feet being hot and being too aggressive.
His excitement in the net, both mentally and physically, is good because it shows he’s on his toes. However, plays that push him way too far out of position end up costing the entire team. There are an innumerable amount of plays where Askarov puts himself out of position because he got too hasty when the puck was coming down the side. Over-commitment on plays is a nasty habit for him, and pairing that with his playstyle’s unsettled nature means many stressful nights for Predators fans if he doesn’t figure it out.
Another interesting quirk about Askarov’s game is how low he gets. As I mentioned before, he’s a butterfly goalie, which essentially means he’s excellent with pucks that are low or on the ice. He’s almost impossible to score on unless you shoot up. However, the problem lies within his playstyle, as well. Many fans noticed how low Askarov got and how it appeared to be putting him out of the line of sight for the puck. Watch here, as his low position makes it harder for him to see the puck.
In Askarov’s defense, it was a great shot from Trevor Zegras. No goalie with that amount of screening in front will be able to get a glove, or in this case, a blocker on it. However, in particular, this clip shows that he opts to go low and peer through the defenders’ legs and attacking forwards instead of using his big frame to look above the traffic. With his playstyle, it is understandable, but there are lots of instances where he completely loses the play because he took the more challenging road.
The final weakness I’d like to touch on isn’t really a weakness at all. It’s just something that the opposition exposed at the World Juniors and players took advantage of consistently. Askarov’s glove side could use some work. It’s not that it’s extremely weak and there’s a ton of problems with it, but it is something that has been exploited by some of the best young players in today’s game, and if it doesn’t change soon, players will remember and do it all over again. It was odd to see Askarov allowing goals like this in the WJC:
It was rather uncharacteristic to see him allowing goals like those on a somewhat consistent basis. It only tells me that his glove side could use some work.
All of these weaknesses are relatively minor. Of course, the mental lapses are never a good thing, but a young and fiery goalie that wants to do everything in his power to be involved in the game is prone to making some dumb plays every once in a while. The excellent news for Predators fans is that coaching and time can fix these issues or weaknesses. The Predators organization is excellent at producing and developing goaltending talent. Goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok doesn’t get nearly enough credit for helping Rinne and Juuse Saros on their journeys, so I wouldn’t have many fears. As long as the coaches in the KHL and possibly MHL don’t instill some bad habits in him, the issues are definitely fixable.
At the 11th-overall pick, a top-tier player should be going to whichever organization is in that spot. Having been praised as “the best goaltender since Carey Price,” Askarov’s future looks extremely bright. The expectation is to have him be the next starting goalie for the Predators as soon as possible. His potential is as high as the eye can see, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect or want him to become a top-five goaltender in the NHL. With the goaltender producing factory that is the Predators’ development system, Askarov should thrive and learn from some of the best in the business.
There is a bigger picture to Askarov’s career than meets the eye. Not only is he freakishly athletic, but his mind for the game draws everyone’s attention. He plays a fascinating style of hockey that could easily draw new fans in on both the local and national scales. His knack for making highlight-reel saves have graced plenty of hockey homes around the world, so if the NHL wants to begin marketing goalies (or anyone for that matter), Askarov is the one to start with.
His celebrations are excellent, his saves are awe-inspiring, he’s willing to take a ton of risks, and there’s a rivalry to be made. Why not try to market him and Knight as massive rivals? It would be a fantastic way to grow both of their fanbases as individual players and bring attention to smaller market teams down south. It would get more people to tune into games between teams that they otherwise might not watch. The matchup would be the calm and collected American goaltender with gold medals to his name versus the fiery and unpredictable Russian goaltender, who also has a few medals to his name. It sounds like a fun storyline that the NHL could carry out for as long as their respective careers last to me. There is a lot of potential here on both the local and national scale for Askarov, and it all begins when his contract in the KHL is up and he moves over to the Music City.
Jeff is a writer for the Nashville Predators department here at THW. He lives and attends high school in Nashville. His family has been season ticket holders for the Preds since their inaugural season. He writes for his own Substack, Last Word on Sports in the hockey department, and the Predators SB Nation site, On The Forecheck