I know what you’re probably saying: Isn’t this Eric D’s thing? Yes, it is. However, enough is enough.
The Nashville Predators drafted Yaroslav Askarov in the 2020 NHL Draft with the 11th overall pick. They selected him higher than the Florida Panthers selected Spencer Knight in 2019 and even higher than the Minnesota Wild selected Jesper Wallstedt in 2021.
Many people saw this tall and athletic goalie as the next big thing. Craig Button dubbed him “the best goaltender he’s seen entering the draft since Carey Price.” There was no shortage of hype surrounding this young Russian kid. He medalled in five international tournaments, including defeating Canada in the gold medal game of the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup tournament as a 17-year-old.
However, the three World Junior Championships he has participated in with Russia have been somewhat underwhelming. His first one was especially bad. He sported a .877 save percentage (Sv%) and wasn’t the goalie that the Russians needed. He let up some soft goals and was made the backup goaltender. Of course, he was extremely young, and it was his first time on a stage of that size, so there was a bit more leeway with the mistakes he made.
In his second appearance at the World Juniors in 2020-21, his Sv% jumped massively to a .914. He was still letting in some soft goals, but it was encouraging to see from a pure statistics standpoint. He was even voted as a top-three player on Team Russia at the end of the tournament.
Now, in his third World Junior appearance, Askarov is getting a massive amount of flak for his performance against Sweden. He allowed three goals on 16 shots, including an extremely soft goal through his five-hole on a shorthanded breakaway from Detroit Red Wings prospect Simon Edvinsson. Even though there were some things to like about his game, it wasn’t encouraging. He was clearly on a short leash, as head coach Sergei Zubov pulled him after the second period and went with Yegor Guskov for the rest of the game and the entirety of the match against Switzerland. So what does that mean? Everyone freaks out.
Let’s put it in perspective
Being selected just outside the top 10 as a goaltender is a rare feat. However, with that selection comes a ridiculous amount of eyes on you at a tournament like the World Juniors. It’s the biggest stage for young players to show off their talent and prove to their respective teams (if they’ve been drafted) that they’re going to make an impact with their club sooner rather than later. Many would say that Askarov hasn’t done that.
In some ways, I would agree. Askarov hasn’t controlled games from the crease nearly as much as I would like to have seen. He hasn’t made the incredible cross-crease saves, and he hasn’t appeared to fight against screens and traffic in front to help absorb the puck in his midsection.
The stops that he needs to make (and has shown he can make before) aren’t there—failing to make them after showing in other leagues and tournaments that he can is a huge contributor to why people are so angry and confused. But let’s get some things straight. The defense in front of him during the 2020-21 tournament was one of the worst in the entire tournament. He let in some soft goals, but many of those that he gave up were because he was left out to dry. The fact that he had a .914 Sv% behind that team is an absolute miracle, and it is often overlooked.
Askarov is unique
The only word that I think describes Askarov perfectly is “unique.” However, the uniqueness has been detrimental to his ability to make saves. Mike McKenna tweeted about it, and the concerns are legitimate.
Vertical coverage lacking. But more than anything :playing that low & wide really, really limits power, lateral adjustments, and rotational ability. Goalies get locked playing like that.— Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) December 26, 2021
Whether you’re a goalie connoisseur or a simpleton that doesn’t enjoy seeing a 19-year-old kid at one of the most volatile positions in all sports, one can’t deny that there are some kinks in Askarov’s game that need to be worked out. The athleticism is there. Now, it’s about harnessing it and refining the techniques he used to post a .951 Sv% in nine games during the 2020-21 season with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Askarov’s ability to move around in the crease with complete fluidity is what makes his game so captivating. He seems to have no trouble stopping some of the most challenging shots he can face merely because he can cover a ridiculous amount of ground with one push. However, Askarov can sometimes use it to a fault. Sometimes he throws himself out of position because of an extra push, or he’s far too overaggressive on a puck to the point where he can’t get back in time for a rebound.
Askarov is a very fun goaltender to watch, but at the same time, I don’t think I had ever had more heart attacks than when he relentlessly threw around his stick at last year’s tournament. The frantic nature of his game appears to be hurting him, so hopefully, as time rolls along, his coaches will teach him to tone it back so as not to throw himself out of position.
So, what do we take from this?
There are a few things to take away. The first goes for many prospects—not just Askarov: don’t make broad judgments on young players based on international tournaments that last less than 10 games. Whether it’s Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov, who have to wait until 2023 to get drafted, or players their respective NHL teams have already selected, these tournaments have little to no bearing on what kind of players they will become. Not every player has a linear development. Some do, but others might struggle at different tournaments against different competition along the way.
Is it disappointing that Askarov hasn’t lived up to the hype on the World Junior stage? Of course. Everyone was hoping for him to have games like Wallstedt did against Slovakia with a 48-save shutout. However, it’s not the end of the world that he hasn’t. It’s not as if the team in front of him has helped prevent high-danger opportunities.
So, while there are obviously things that the young goaltender can work on, we have to remember that he is only 19, with relatively poor defense in front of him. There is still a long way to go in Askarov’s career, and some bumps in the road at the World Juniors will not define his career, just as they don’t define any other player’s career. It’s going to be okay, everyone.