Iaroslav Askarov became the highest-drafted Russia-born goalie in NHL history when the Nashville Predators selected him with the No. 11 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft on Tuesday.
“I feel joy and happiness, and still can’t understand what just happened,” Askarov said after the Predators chose him in the first round. “Every kid has dreams and goals, and I was one of them.”
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had been the highest-drafted Russia-born goalie; he was selected with the No. 19 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
“When I started to play hockey, I was dreaming about the NHL and today is the first step to make it real,” Askarov said.
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Askarov (6-foot-3, 176 pounds), who catches right-handed, is the fifth Russia-born goalie to be selected in the first round. He joins Vasilevskiy; Yevgeni Ryabchikov, No. 21 in 1994 by the Boston Bruins; Semyon Varlamov, No. 23 in 2006 by the Washington Capitals; and Ilya Samsonov, No. 22 in 2015 by Washington.
The 18-year-old is also the highest goalie taken since Jack Campbell was selected by the Dallas Stars with the No. 11 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.
“[Askarov] is an elite, elite prospect,” Predators assistant general manager Jeff Kealty said. “The talent level and the athleticism stands out right away. We compare his athleticism to that of (Predators goalie) Pekka Rinne or (Los Angeles Kings goalie) Jonathan Quick, and he’s mature beyond his years in terms of his compete level and mental makeup.
“We believe he was the best player available, and if you have a franchise goaltender on your hands, which we do believe he will be, you’re in a very good situation.”
Selecting Askarov, under contract to SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League through 2020-21, fills a future need for Nashville.
Rinne turns 38 on Nov. 3 and can become an unrestricted free agent after next season; goalie Juuse Saros can become a restricted free agent after next season. Saros took over as the No. 1 goalie after Rinne struggled this season and the 25-year-old went 12-5-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and four shutouts in his last 20 games (18 starts) of the regular season. He had a 3.22 GAA and .895 save percentage in a four-game loss to the Arizona Coyotes in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Predators captain Roman Josi announces goalie Iaroslav Askarov as 11th pick overall in 2020 NHL Draft with GM David Poile
Rinne, who had been Nashville’s No. 1 goalie since the 2008-09 season, was 4-6-1 with a 3.59 GAA and .895 save percentage in his last 11 starts this season. He finished 18-14-4 with a 3.17 GAA, .895 save percentage and three shutouts in 36 games (35 starts).
“[Rinne and Saros] are experienced guys,” Askarov said. “I’ll be happy to practice and play with them someday. I look forward to learning something from them and will be excited to meet them and see how the NHL works.
“I don’t feel [nervous] right now, maybe I will when I have to go to North America, but I’m just happy. I’m very confident about myself and not nervous. I look forward to playing my game.”
Nashville has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. The Predators lost in the second round to the Winnipeg Jets in 2018, and in the first round to the Dallas Stars last season.
That’s one more reason the Predators had their sights set on Askarov, who has a proven track record in the clutch, helping Russia to six top-three finishes in six international events.
“Askarov is always impacting games,” director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. “He’s a difference maker that loves the challenge of big games. His size, quickness and recovery are exceptional, he tracks the play well and holds his position in the net. He never gives up on a play and loses focus.
“He’s the real deal.”
Askarov was 12-3-3 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 18 games in Russia’s minor league last season and is 2-1-0 with an 0.74 GAA, .974 save percentage and one shutout in three KHL games this season.
“[He’s] just all the things that you look for in a modern-day goaltender,” Kealty said. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive, he reads the play extremely well. He’s a guy that’s been on our radar for quite a while, and we really feel he fits the bill as a franchise goaltender.”