As legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak once said, there is no position in sport as noble as goaltending. And in hockey, there is perhaps none more important, either, as most successful NHL franchises have built from the crease out with a high-end talent in goal.
With the Chicago Blackhawks likely picking toward the back end of the top 10 in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, I would like to unpack why the organization needs—yes, needs—to draft Russian goaltending phenom Yaroslav Askarov.
The current situation
It is no surprise there will soon be a changing of the guard in net for the Blackhawks. Longtime goaltender Corey Crawford is quickly approaching the end of his esteemed career, with likely just another year or two left in his tank, at most. Crawford’s recent injury struggles are well documented, and the netminder could be one collision away from being finished between the pipes.
Additionally, the Blackhawks balked at the opportunity to secure the long-term outlook of the position, trading away Robin Lehner at the trade deadline rather than locking him up to a contract extension.
With Crawford’s playing days likely coming to an end in the near future, the organization will need to answer the question of who will serve as the next Blackhawk great in the crease.
In addition to Crawford, backup goaltender Malcolm Subban is set to be a free agent this offseason. Subban, acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Lehner deal, is 26 years old and will be a restricted free agent. The 2012 Boston first-round pick has struggled to establish himself as a legitimate NHL option, not seeing regular playing time until the 2017–18 season, playing 22 games for Vegas with a 2.68 goals against average (GAA) and a .910 save percentage.
However, since then, Subban’s numbers have steadily dropped off, posting a 3.18 GAA and a .890 save percentage in 20 appearances for the Golden Knights this season before coming to Chicago, where he saw just 70 seconds of action on March 3 against Anaheim while Crawford was momentarily pulled from the game. Though the Blackhawks could choose to bring back Subban, he likely does not factor into the team’s long-term plans between the pipes, as his limited usage while in Chicago seems to indicate, meaning the organization needs to either acquire or develop its next big-time netminder.
The Blackhawks’ history of drafting goaltenders
Of course, some could point to the Blackhawks’ failure to draft and develop quality goaltending talent as a reason to pass on Askarov. Since selecting Crawford (and Mike Brodeur) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Chicago has picked 12 goaltenders. Those 12 netminders have combined to make just one appearance in the NHL, as Kent Simpson played just 20 minutes in a 7–3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 14, 2013, allowing two goals on seven shots faced.
However, on the contrary, of those 12 goaltenders, only three were selected in the first three rounds of a draft, with Simpson being the only second-round selectee (the last of three second-round picks that year) and none being chosen in the first round. The overwhelming majority of those 12 goaltenders could be described as the Blackhawks taking a flier to see if they might become something down the road, an unlikely proposition regardless of position as the draft progresses.
All this to say, the Blackhawks have not invested a high-end draft pick in a goaltender since Crawford, as he was the last netminder selected with one of Chicago’s first three picks in a draft.
Another important thing to note is the quality of player a team would ideally be looking for with a top-10 pick. As The Rink’s own John Jaeckel has pointed out previously, with a top-10 pick, a team should likely be hoping it can acquire a No. 1 center, a No. 1 defenseman or a No. 1 goaltender, or at worst, a future first-line winger capable of producing at a high-end level. Of course, by being at the bottom of the top 10, the likelihood of getting a No. 1 center or defenseman is not as high as it would be with a lottery pick, despite this year’s draft class widely being considered to be fairly deep. The other “No. 1” category? Bingo.
Additionally, many would argue the best draft strategy is to select the best player available, and if that player fills a need, even better. The draft is a valuable tool to restock the cupboards and develop the next great wave of talent for an organization. A team should be selecting players that improve its situation, whatever that may look like, regardless of position, timeline or nationality.
However, with the tandem Chicago was icing in net prior to the stoppage of play pretty clearly not being the long-term answer between the pipes, a thorough analysis of other goaltenders within the organization is warranted before potentially using a first-round pick on a netminder.
In the system
The Blackhawks currently have three goaltenders under contract for next season in Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Matt Tomkins, who split time with the Rockford IceHogs this season. While Delia and Lankinen could prove to be serviceable backups at the NHL level, neither is likely to develop into a legitimate top-end starting goaltender. Tomkins likely does not have much of a future in the NHL, at least not in Chicago, as he is rather comfortably the third-best option of that trio.
Two goaltenders currently hold a minor-league contract or a professional tryout agreement (PTO), as 24-year-old Tom Aubrun was signed out of Norwich University earlier this month while 2014 sixth-round pick Ivan Nalimov signed a PTO with the IceHogs in March just prior to the stoppage of play.
Though Aubrun, a native of Chamonix, France, has boasted impressive numbers thus far in his career, he is likely a wild card at this point, having spent the last four seasons playing at the NCAA DIII level for the Cadets. Aubrun took over the starting job as a junior in 2018–19, posting a 1.70 GAA and .929 save percentage in 28 games before dominating all season long as a senior with a GAA of 0.77 and a save percentage of .967 in 27 outings, highlighted by a remarkable nine-game shutout streak prior to the remainder of the team’s season being canceled.
While Aubrun’s gaudy numbers do warrant attention, he will need to prove himself at a higher level of play before being considered to be a legitimate NHL option down the road. Aubrun will likely spend the 2020–21 season with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL.
Nalimov has been an interesting case since being selected by the Blackhawks in 2014. The Russian has bounced around in his native land, playing for seven teams since the start of the 2016–17 season with mixed results. Though Nalimov does have raw talent, he appears to be a headcase, which likely does not bode well for a chance at NHL stardom, especially at this stage of his career.
After struggling in his first season in North America in the USHL during the 2017–18 season, Peeters has since spent the majority of his time back in Europe, where he will likely remain for the rest of his career. The native of Belgium appears to be nothing more than a failed use of a third-round pick in 2016.
Like Aubrun, Basse is very much an unknown wild card at this point in time. Though possessing raw ability, the 2019 sixth-rounder is also an unproven commodity. Basse will head to Colorado College next season.
At this time, Gravel is likely the goaltender within the Blackhawks’ system with the highest ceiling, having displayed his ability well over the last four seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. Though Gravel may have the potential to become a starting goaltender at the NHL level, that is far from a guarantee. Chicago will need to make up its mind on Gravel in the near future, as the organization will lose his rights on June 1 if he is not signed prior to then.
To summarize, while any one of the netminders currently within the organization could theoretically develop into a serviceable NHL option—after all, anything can happen, as some might claim—the likelihood any of them will become elite, Stanley Cup-worthy talents is extremely slim.
Other avenues for finding the goalie of the future
Of course, the Blackhawks could opt to sign a high-end free agent goaltender. But, by passing on bringing back Lehner, that route likely is not in the cards given the team did not want to spend the required money to do so after the big Swede fell into their lap last summer.
Chicago could also attempt to trade for a goaltender of the future, as it seemed they might have in March when rumors swirled of Russian prospect Ilya Sorokin’s rights heading to the Blackhawks. However, the price to acquire a young goaltender of that calibre in a trade would be high, and the organization has not successfully swung a deal for a goalie of the future since acquiring Jocelyn Thibault in 1998.
So, where does that leave the Blackhawks in terms of finding a long-term answer in the cage? How are the majority of elite goaltenders acquired? The NHL Entry Draft. Cue Askarov.
Askarov is widely considered to be the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price in 2005. What does that indicate? Askarov is viewed as a generational type of netminder. His draft stock is higher than other touted goaltenders over the last 15 years, including Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ilya Samsonov and Spencer Knight. In fact, since Price and Tuukka Rask were selected in 2005, just 13 goaltenders have been chosen in the first round, seven of which have been since 2010.
Over the last decade, more and more teams have seemingly decided drafting a goaltender in the first round may not be worth their pick. This philosophy is evidenced by the somewhat drastic change in the number of netminders selected in the first round in the last two decades, as 22 goaltenders were selected in the first round between 2000 and 2009 compared to just seven from 2010 to 2019.
Some may also be leery of the “Russian factor,” as Askarov could theoretically never come over to play in North America. However, in recent years, the likes of Vasilevskiy, Samsonov and Igor Shesterkin have decreased that concern by showing high-end Russian goaltenders can very well make and follow through with the commitment.
Despite all this, Askarov has been considered a slam-dunk first-round pick for this year, with many proclaiming him worthy of a top-10 selection. Again, this is because of Askarov’s obvious talent and his potential to legitimately become a franchise-altering goaltender and annual Vezina Trophy candidate.
Askarov has been nothing short of sensational in nearly every stop of his young career. He has dominated in international tournaments against his age group over the past three seasons and has only come back down to earth in an average showing at the 2020 World Junior Championships, where he posted a 2.71 GAA and a .877 save percentage in five appearances. But, Askarov still had an impressive 2019–20 campaign otherwise, highlighted by a gold medal in the Gretzky Hlinka Cup and a strong showing in his first-ever KHL game for SKA St. Petersburg, a 23-save performance in a 4–2 win.
The stars align
As noted earlier, with nothing of substantial quality looming in the netminder pipeline, now is the time for the Blackhawks to break the trend and finally invest a quality draft pick in a goaltender. By filling that hole, the organization can entirely focus on other gaps in the system, knowing arguably the biggest vacancy is taken care of. And, with the best goaltending prospect in the last 15 years potentially being on the board when General Manager Stan Bowman announces Chicago’s newest draftee, the timing could not be any better.