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Should the Minnesota Wild Take a Goalie in the First Round? Yaroslav Askarov Could Be the Franchise Netminder They Need

Photo credit: Faceoff With Farenholtz YouTube screengrab

The Minnesota Wild hold the ninth pick in the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft. That’s good news for the State of Hockey, as this draft boasts a deep pool of top-tier talent. But having options means there will be debates. The main one in Minnesota will be whether the Wild should draft for need, or get the best available player.

It’s an interesting exercise, but ultimately a pointless one. While Minnesota’s prospect pool is significantly improved from that of years past, there are needs everywhere. Yes, the pressing need for a franchise center looms over everything, but the Wild could use help everywhere.

Minnesota may have one blue-chip defense prospect, depending on how you feel about Calen Addison. They also lack elite talent up front, even with wingers like Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy in-house. If they add a truly electric winger to their system, could anyone honestly say the Wild didn’t address a need?

This includes goaltending. The Wild had some of the worst goaltending in the NHL last season between Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. Is help on the way? Maybe. Minnesota’s goalie pipeline looks like the rest of the system: improving but without elite talent.

Kaapo Kahkonen figures to be ready to step into the NHL after being named the AHL’s Goalie of the Year. However, it’s unknown whether he will be a starting-caliber goalie. Scouts don’t seem to rate his skills as elite, and he had a penchant for streakiness in the minors.

Hunter Jones, their second round pick in 2019, was a top-5 goalie in the OHL last season. But he is 19 and needs further development. Goalies like Mat Robson and Filip Lindberg are, at the moment, intriguing long shots.

So, yes, Minnesota needs a blue-chip goalie prospect. Enter Yaroslav Askarov.

V For VeryGoodGoalie

Do a quick scan of the goalies poised to dominate the league over the next decade. You’ll see names like the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin, Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, the Rangers’ Igor Shestyorkin and, of course, “elder statesman” 26-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Notice a theme? All of them came up through Russia, who has been exceptional at developing goalie talent. Askarov is the latest in that line and perhaps the best of all of them.

Askarov has advanced farther than any of them at a young age. He spent 18 games playing in the VHL last season, one level below the KHL, as a 17-year-old. None of the recent Russian goalies mentioned earlier spent any significant time in the VHL or KHL.

And Askarov didn’t just play in Russia’s second-highest league. He dominated. Askarov was impressively able to hold his own against men*. He posted a .920 save percentage and 12-3 record, hardly missing a beat from the .921 he put up in 31 games at the lower-level MHL.

The stats are gaudy, but his skills and makeup earn universal praise from the scouting community. But don’t take my word for it.

Corey Pronman of The Athletic: “Askarov is often challenging shooters even in unorthodox situations, but he isn’t often beat when he is aggressive, which speaks to his hockey IQ.”

Future Considerations: “His athleticism is exemplary, allowing him to explode post-to-post, shoot out to challenge shooters and quickly spring back up from the butterfly to his stance.”

Last Word on Hockey: “Askarov has the ability to shake off bad goals and does not let them snowball by being prepared for the next scoring chance.”

Askarov is a uniquely advanced goalie prospect with a ton of smarts to go with elite skill. Even if you think Minnesota’s goalie pipeline is solid, they don’t have anyone like Askarov.

Wait, Isn’t Taking a Goalie early Bad?

“Don’t Draft Goalies in the First Round” is conventional wisdom that has taken root in the hockey world. And when you look at first round goalies taken from 2001 to 2010, it’s easy to see why. Out of those 22 goalies, just seven played 400 games with a save percentage of .910 or higher. The miss rate was massive.

How much of a risk is it today, though? Teams are much more careful about drafting goalies in the first round, doing so only five times since 2011. That group consists of Vasilevskiy, Samsonov, Malcolm Subban, Jake Oettinger and Spencer Knight.

Of the three that have made it to the NHL, Vasilevskiy is a perennial Vezina candidate, Samsonov is coming off a solid rookie year and Subban has struggled. Two out of three, as they say, ain’t bad. Oettinger and Knight are firmly in “prospect” territory, but Oettinger’s rookie season in the AHL was brilliant (.917 in 38 games at age-21) and Knight was one of the NCAA’s best goalies as a freshman.

So perhaps “Don’t Draft Goalies in the First Round” shouldn’t be a rule to live by, but rather “Be Careful About Drafting Goalies in the First Round.” And four of the five teams that rolled the dice have to be happy about the gamble they made.

There are other success stories that hint goalie prospect evaluation has come a long way. John Gibson (2011), Tristan Jarry (2013), Thatcher Demko (2014), Mackenzie Blackwood (2015) and Carter Hart (2016) are all second-round picks who were identified as top-2 goalies in their class.

The scouting community has gotten much better at identifying top-tier goaltending talent at the draft. That improvement makes spending a high pick on an elite goaltending prospect like Askarov a much less risky proposition.

Unknown Risk / High Reward

Whatever risk picking Askarov carries is more than outweighed by the reward of getting a potential franchise goalie.

The 10th-best goalie has been worth an average of 6.0 standings points above replacement (SPAR) over the last decade. Six standings points may not blow you away on paper, but it’s nearly an MVP-level in hockey. The 10th-best skater at any position during that time has been worth an average of 6.6 points.

Mind you, that’s just a top-10 goalie. If Askarov has seasons where he’s a top-5 goalie, that’s even more valuable. The fifth-best goalie over the past decade averages a whopping 7.7 SPAR. Being able to reliably spot yourself six or seven points in the standings is an incredible advantage.

It’s true that teams don’t have to rely on top draft picks to obtain strong goalies. Wild fans can point to Minnesota acquiring Dubnyk, who was recently on the scrap heap, with a third round pick. They can also look to Arizona, where former Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper is excelling. The Coyotes got Kuemper for bottom-6 forward Tobias Rieder.

But there are drawbacks to both those strategies. Let’s look at Dubnyk as an example. Minnesota made a smart bet on Dubnyk, who gave them several good years. But Dubnyk was 28 at the time of acquisition, with most of his prime years in the past. Sure enough, he hit 30 and started declining soon after. Identifying goalies that late in their careers makes them a shorter-term solution.

Drafting and developing a goalie gives a team a much longer-term solution in net. Picking Askarov at ninth overall would give Minnesota the entire prime of an elite goalie prospect. That’s much preferable to signing, say, a Robin Lehner in free agency.

Coming to a Crease Near You?

Teams have shied away from taking goalies early not just because of the perceived risk involved. It also has to do with the timetables for goalies to make the NHL. Traditionally, developing a goalie takes more time than forwards or defensemen.

Elvis Merzlikins and Jordan Binnington are recent examples of the stereotypical goalie development curve. Both didn’t make the NHL until age 25 — seven whole years after they were drafted. Both excelled once they got there, but that’s a lot of theoretical prime years lost to development.

However, long incubation periods for goalies are becoming exceedingly rare. Hart and Vasilevskiy both broke into the league at age 20. Gibson, Matt Murray and Juuse Saros made their debuts at 21, with Murray winning a Stanley Cup that year. Most teams are seeing their goalies by their age-23 seasons.

And again, Askarov is far ahead of the curve, excelling against much older competition at age 17. He’s got as good of a shot as anyone to hit that Hart/Vasilevskiy timeline, giving Minnesota an immediate return.

With all of that considered, it’s hard to argue that Askarov isn’t worth Minnesota’s ninth overall pick. Is it a risk? Sure. So is anyone taken with a pick in the back end of the top-10. Can’t-miss players go off the board way earlier. No skater, whether a center, winger or defenseman, is a guarantee to be an impact player.

If you take the scouting community at its word, Askarov is simply elite. Picking him could give Minnesota a long-term goalie solution, even if he doesn’t deliver 100% of his potential. And if he does become everything he’s hyped to be? Then the Wild have their franchise changing player.

At the end of the day, isn’t that all anyone wants?

*This sentence was modified to specify that he played well considered his older competition.

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Photo credit: Faceoff With Farenholtz YouTube screengrab

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