Yaroslav Askarov: A Canadiens’ First-Round Pick?

Russian netminder Yaroslav Askarov has been identified as a top-10 talent by many experts. Since the Montreal Canadiens are likely to pick somewhere around eighth overall, should they draft this young promising goaltender with their first-round pick?

Related: Yaroslav Askarov – 2020 NHL Draft Prospect Profile

Due to their long and steep developmental curves, drafting a goalie is an imperfect science. Given the talented players at every position in the deep 2020 NHL Entry Draft, what makes Askarov so special that he should be picked in the top-10?

The Prospect

Askarov is a 17-year-old goaltender with tons of potential. In 18 games in the VHL, the Russian hockey league below the KHL, Askarov played 18 games for 12 wins, 3 losses and 3 overtime losses. He had a .920 save percentage (SV%) with a 2.45 goals-against average (GAA). He also played one game in the KHL, backstopping the SKA St-Petersburg to a 4-2 win against Sochi.

Yaroslav Askarov Team Russia
Team Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov (Russia Hockey/FHR.RU)

He has the size NHL teams are looking for at 6-foot-3, and after dominating the U18 and Hlinka-Gretzky tournaments, he is ready for a bigger role next year with Russia’s U20 team, and maybe in the KHL. While numbers and performances are important, Askarov’s true potential stems from his technique, tenacity and athleticism.

In the video below, Askarov showcases his athleticism, strong lateral movement and adequate puck control. Most of all, he does not give up on the play, he pushes laterally to stifle second chances and often covers up up loose pucks to stop momentum. Askarov’s butterfly-style resembles Sergei Bobrovsky’s: low thigh positioning, active gloves and quick reactions to bouncing pucks and rebounds. This is the style that helped the Florida Panthers goalie win two Vezina Trophies and who is effective against high-caliber and screened shots.

Yaroslav Askarov in action for the SKA-Neva St. Petersburg

In short, Askarov has speed, technical prowess and the will to stop every puck that comes his way. Moreover, he exudes a level of confidence in challenging shooters that can spark comparisons to the best in the league: Bobrovsky, Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy. With a few more years of hockey under his belt, Askarov should make a lot of noise in the NHL.

However, do the Canadiens need another goaltender in their prospect pool?

Canadiens Prospects

The Canadiens have one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL. Accordingly, they were ranked second among NHL teams prospect-wise by Scott Wheeler of The Athletic in February of 2020. (from ‘Scott Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings,’ The Athletic, 02/11/2020)

Among Montreal’s top prospects are defenceman Alexander Romanov (38th overall in 2018), center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (3rd overall in 2018), winger Cole Caufield (15th overall in 2019), defenceman Mattias Norlinder (64th overall in 2019), winger Jesse Ylönen (35th overall in 2018) and netminder Cayden Primeau (199th overall in 2017).

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens
Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens, 2018 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Among these players, a few have already started their NHL careers: Kotkaniemi and Primeau have played for the Canadiens; Romanov is bound to make his NHL debut in 2020-21; Ylönen was signed to an entry-level contract to help the Laval Rocket fight for a playoff spot before the 2019-20 season was halted.

Except for a tier-one, right-handed defenceman, the Canadiens have depth at every position. Since there is no sure pick at that position in the 2020 Draft, except Jamie Drysdale, who should not fall lower than the top-5, the Habs should draft the best available player when their turn comes.

Erie Otters Jamie Drysdale
Jamie Drysdale of the Erie Otters. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

Who is the best available player? What will be the Canadiens’ positional need down the road? Questions like these explain the dark circles under general manager Marc Bergevin’s eyes on Draft day.

Everything hinges on the Canadiens’ draft position. Most scenarios have them drafting between 7th and 9th when prospects like Alexander Holtz, Cole Perfetti, Jake Sanderson and Marco Rossi will likely still be available.

Related: Montreal Canadiens’ 5 Best Draft Picks 2000-10

Any of these players would deepen Montreal’s prospect pool. This year’s projected top-10 has the same potential as any year’s top-5. I would draft Perfetti because of his skills, scoring acumen, wicked shot and impressive vision, though any of them might grow into NHL superstars.

Saginaw Spirit Cole Perfetti
Cole Perfetti of the Saginaw Spirit. (Credit: Saginaw Spirit / OHL)

Multiple scouts consider Askarov a franchise cornerstone, going as early as the top-10. However, should the Canadiens draft another goalie with a top-10 pick after grabbing Price fifth overall in 2005? It depends on the plan for Price’s succession.

Carey Price’s Successor

Indeed, Price is not a young player anymore at 32 years old (33 in August 2020). He has a few more solid years in front of him, but his strong performances will dwindle in the next five years or so. Some would even argue that his decline has already started.

Related: Canadiens’ Top UFA Goalie Targets

Having Askarov in the system would come in handy in a few years when Price’s performance falls off, or if he is eased into retirement as a veteran presence to help a new number one with the club.

Goaltender Carey Price
Goaltender Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Although Primeau is a strong prospect, it’s uncertain when or if he will become a perennial number one goalie in upcoming seasons. His .938 SV% in two NHL games and .908 in 33 games in the AHL are encouraging, as were his previous seasons at Northeastern University and at the World Junior Championships in 2018-19. Still, a goaltender’s development is long and strenuous, even for a strong player like Primeau.

Primeau should be a solid NHL goalie in one or two seasons. However, with the new trend toward load management for goalies (see the Halak-Rask tandem for the Boston Bruins), a one-two punch in nets could become a necessity and replace the old model set by Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Price playing 60-game seasons before entering the playoffs. In that case, having several goalie prospects in the system is essential.

Cayden Primeau Gabriel Landeskog,
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Cayden Primeau (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

It’s also worth noting that in the past decade Russian goaltenders have put their mark on the NHL with three Vezina Trophies in ten years divided between Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy. In the upcoming decade, Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin are poised to make a splash with the New York Rangers and Islanders respectively.

Thus, Russia has produced an increased number of dominant NHL goalies. The athleticism, size, tenacity and technical prowess of Russian goalies are staple skills that bring them to high levels of performance. Could Askarov be the next Russian goalie to put his stamp on the NHL? Experts seem to think he has all the tools to do so.

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

If Askarov follows the model of the four Russian goalies enumerated above, chances are he will make his debut in the NHL in about three to four years, with a big impact in five or six. Indeed, Bobrovsky, Vasilevskiy, Shesterkin and Sorokin have all entered the NHL after playing several seasons in the KHL. The maturity of entering the league in their early twenties was an important boon towards progressing both as an athlete and individual.

We will wait and see if the Canadiens are interested in Askarov. One thing is certain: He has the potential and physical attributes to become a superstar in the NHL. In The Hockey Writers’ 2020 Mock Draft, Askarov was drafted 9th overall by Chicago’s Peter Baracchini. So, depending on the Canadiens’ position in the draft, there is a possibility that the Russian goalie will not even be available! If he is available, however, the Canadiens could look to pursue their historic lineage of elite goaltenders by drafting Askarov.