With both Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros heading into the last seasons of their respective contracts, Nashville had to briefly consider this offseason its potential plans at goaltender after Rinne’s time with the team came to an end: make plans to extend Saros long-term and crown him the heir-apparent? Or look elsewhere, potentially in Milwaukee or through free agency for a different option...
It wasn’t suspected until the last couple of days leading up to the 2020 NHL Entry Draft that the Predators could potentially use their first round selection to take a goaltender, but that’s exactly what they did.
Choosing Yaroslav Askarov, a highly-touted Russian goaltender labeled as the best goalie available in the draft since Carey Price, one could reasonably wonder now if Nashville’s plans in net have taken a seismic shift in a direction that none of us could have foreseen six months ago.
While Askarov remains under contract in the KHL until 2022, it gives the Predators ample time to prepare him for a career in the NHL. Not only that, but playing in arguably the second-best professional hockey league in the world can do nothing but help bolster Askarov’s game until he’s ready to take the starting reins in Nashville.
Let’s take a quick step back, though. We need to evaluate just for a moment what kind of landscape change this means for the Predators, and how we ended up here.
Even with 17 wins in each of the last two seasons, Saros’ play has largely taken a noticeable dip. So much so that his level of consistency — or perhaps inconsistency? — has raised questions as to whether or not he should be Nashville’s answer in goal. After his showing against the Coyotes in the qualifying round prior to the Stanley Cup playoffs, I wonder if Preds management had possibly seen enough.
Drafting Askarov certainly isn’t the wrong move for Nashville, nor is it a rash decision either. General Manager David Poile isn’t one to make spur-of-the-moment draft selections based on one or two negative outcomes; he’s always been extremely calculated regarding the future of the franchise.
And just look at what Askarov can do already. At 18 years old:
It’s clear that the young man could be a special goaltender very soon in the NHL, one that Nashville could be looking back at in ten-plus years as a steal in the first round of a very deep draft.
In the meantime, however, what do the Predators do in goal?
Rinne will be 38 in less than a month and his best playing days are, unfortunately, long behind him. The drafting of Askarov, in my opinion, is a no-confidence vote for Saros. Both Connor Ingram and Troy Grosenick have played great in Milwaukee, but I personally don’t believe they are long-term options either, and that’s assuming that Grosenick is brought back to the Nashville organization this season as he’s currently an unrestricted free agent.
If we’re looking into a crystal ball over the next two to three years, my guess would be that Nashville sees a majority split of starts next season going to Saros. Presumably, if Rinne isn’t with the Predators after 2020-21 and Saros is (highly likely) tendered a qualifying offer, you’ll see a combination of Saros and Ingram in net.
From there, if all goes according to plan, Askarov steps in and slowly takes over in the starter’s crease, and Nashville has a new window of opportunity to work with.
That’s if everything goes according to plan.
What if Askarov doesn’t pan out?
Nashville previously took two goaltenders in the first round: Chet Pickard in 2008 and Brian Finley in 1999. The former never played a game at the NHL level while the latter played a total of four.
Taking a goaltender in the top half of the draft’s first round is what you would call a high-risk, high-reward move.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, and Carey Price are all top-five draft picks, respectively. For every highly-successful goaltender picked early in the draft, however, there are a number who just don’t pan out.
This is the 26th goaltender taken in franchise history for the Predators and the first time they’ve used their first choice of the draft to take one since Magnus Hellberg was selected 38th overall in 2011.
Of the 25 that Nashville drafted previously, only three have played more than 100 games at the NHL level: Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros, and Anders Lindback.
That’s the risk you always take. It’s just seemingly amplified when it comes to successful goaltenders.
And for Nashville, they need a home run in the worst way after coming within 62 minutes of winning the Stanley Cup now three years ago.
Hopefully for them, Askarov is the answer they’ve been looking for.