There is an inherent understanding that evaluating goaltenders is a nearly impossible task, proving the axiom that drafting is an inexact science to be true. Yaroslav Askarov, the 18-year-old standout from SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL, is intent on shaking up the draft despite this notion as the closest thing to a consensus sure-fire goalie in a decade, despite a poor showing at the 2019 world juniors.
For every Carey Price, Tuukka Rask or Andrei Vasilevskiy, there are countless goaltenders who crumble under the weight of pre-draft expectations, or fail to adapt to the improved shot quality and creation through the professional ranks.
The 2020 draft class is one of the deepest pools in years and Askarov presents a difficult philosophical question for teams picking within the top 10: do you select a skater, with a much lower risk statistically of being a bust, or do you select a goaltender who is already starring in a competitive professional league with the potential to be among the NHL’s elite for 15 years, albeit with a much higher risk factor? Askarov has the potential to be the draft’s best player and where he ends up ought to be a fascinating development, even if it’s a slow burn.
Most international prospects get their introduction to a North American audience during the world juniors, which is why it was surprising that undrafted Amir Miftakhov beat Askarov out for Russia’s starting spot during the 2019 tournament. Askarov posted a .877 save percentage with a 2-1 record and 2.71 goals-against average, and did not suit up during the medal round. This isn’t the truest reflection of Askarov’s international performances to date, as he was unstoppable with a 5-0 record at the 2018 U-17 tournament, with a sparkling .948 save percentage. He then went 4-0 with a .960 save percentage at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, leading Russia to gold both times.
While the 2019 world juniors was expected to be Askarov’s coming out party, last winter was an aberration for those who have monitored his decorated career.
"Askarov is one of the most athletic goaltenders available in this draft," NHL Central Scouting's Dan Marr said in May to NHL.com’s Dana Wakiji. "He's got a proven track record. He's one of these players that has always been the youngest player on his team. He's got a shelf full of medals already. He brings the size, the compete level and he has all the goaltending tools that he needs to be a No. 1 goalie in the National Hockey League."
Askarov’s KHL contract expires after the 2021-22 season and while most goaltenders aren’t rushed to the NHL, it will require a bit of patience to see an immediate return on value, a consideration that general managers will have to consider if they’re looking for an instant jolt to their organization. Askarov has shown every indication he wants to star in the NHL and while it’s tempting to compare him to Vasilevskiy, it’s admittedly lazy based off their shard 6-foot-3 stature and route to the NHL. The 18-year-old is far more accomplished at this stage of their careers. For those who may be impatient about Askarov, it’s worth remembering it took about three NHL seasons for Vasilevskiy to turn into the world-beating force he is today.
"If Askarov is your guy, four isn't too high if that's who you want,” TSN’s Craig Button said. “But I think it always comes down to differentiating, okay, do we want the No. 1 defenseman, do we want the No. 1 center, do we want the No. 1 goalie, do we want the No. 1 winger? I would say, listen, this is why I talk about the depth of this draft. It's high end through the first nine, 10, 11, 12 picks. I really believe that."
Barring any surprises, we know that Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield and Tim Stützle will all hear their names called before the draft really takes shape at No. 4 overall. Selecting goaltenders in the first round always carries inherent risk, but Askarov could pay dividends for those willing to take it on.
Here are some other intriguing prospects to keep an eye on at the NHL draft:
Hendrix Lapierre, C, Chicoutimi Saguenéens
Lapierre has been nearly a point-per-game player at the QMJHL level, while battling through several concussions and a spinal injury during his major junior career. The left-handed center was taken first overall in the QMJHL Draft in 2018 and when healthy, has proved to be a strong playmaker with high-level defensive acumen. Lapierre said he models his game after a hybrid combination of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Aleksander Barkov, and though it’s an ambitious comparison, he’s not wrong. At this juncture, Lapierre is a significantly better playmaker than he is as a goal-scorer, and there are concerns about his skating and injury history, but his production and past pedigree could see him fluctuate anywhere from a top-11 to a top-50 pick.
Antonio Stranges, C/LW, London Knights
Stranges boasts world-class edge work and if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you may have seen his highlight reel.
Despite his NHL-caliber skating and stickhandling, Stranges dropped down draft boards as the season progressed. He’s slightly undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, though those distinctions rarely matter in the modern NHL. With 40 points in 61 games, Stranges’ production isn’t necessarily the problem but he’s shown a tendency to check out of games and is the draft’s biggest question mark. For teams willing to take a high-risk, high-reward skater with some holes in their game, Stranges may be their guy.
Jean-Luc Foudy, C, Windsor Spitfires
Yes, he’s Liam Foudy’s brother but the 18-year-old is carving out his own reputation. Foudy is an exceptional skater — he very well may be the fastest player in the draft. Capable of playing either center or wing, Foudy provides some offensive versatility and is a stellar playmaker, but at the risk of being reductive, his entire game is dictated by his top-tier speed and he needs to improve away from the puck. In any event, Foudy might end up being one of the biggest steals of the draft.
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