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Top goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov on personality, bench pressing nets, and trying to grow the game
The Predators 2020 first-round pick discusses his first season in North America in an exclusive story for Shap Shots
Let’s start with the clip that prompted this story.
That’s Nashville Predators goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov.
Askarov was a first-round pick in 2020, 11th overall, and is Nashville’s highest-ranked prospect according to the fine folks at EP Rinkside.
While Juuse Saros is the present in Nashville, Askarov is the heir apparent and this season in Milwaukee he’s posted a .912 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average.
He’s also faced double the number of shootout attempts of anyone else in the league, 37, and only allowed five goals — pun intended — that’s some heavy lifting in the one-on-one showcase.
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I spoke with Askarov on Wednesday over Zoom, with help from fellow Predators prospect Yegor Afanasyev, who served as the informal interpreter for the Russian goalie.
So let’s start with the bench press celebration, which prompted some viral coverage of Askarov and the Admirals, led to interviews like this one, and stories like the one that you are reading right now.
(Editor’s note: For sake of clarity, please understand quotes attributed to Askarov are a mix of his direct words in English, and Russian answers translated by Afanasyev.)
“It’s awesome, I think it’s good for hockey,” Askarov said. “It’s a new celly, it gets people talking about hockey … in hockey it’s not common for people to show personality, so when people do that, I think it’s great for the game because a lot of new fans or people don’t know hockey have no reason to watch hockey if we don’t have personality.”
Honestly, if his goaltending career doesn’t work out, Askarov should be hired as a consultant for the NHL’s marketing department.
And living in Milwaukee has given Askarov first-hand look at more popular American sports in the NBA and the NFL, including attending a handful of Milwaukee Bucks games where Askarov said, “you can tell they understand it’s entertainment.”
“They’ve got more personality and show more personality, I came over from a new country and don’t know NBA or NFL rules,” Askarov said. “But guys are smiling, celebrating, having fun after a touchdown. And it’s like, ‘wow, they are having fun, the game is supposed to be fun.’ Hockey can be so serious sometimes, people don’t look like they are having fun.”
Askarov’s bench-press celebration, for example, isn’t a highlight that the hockey traditionalists will enjoy. He understands that. He also doesn’t really care.
“There are always two opinions and some people might think it’s disrespectful or something,” Askarov said. “But I think for the overall population it’s good for hockey.”
He also, through Afanasyev talked about how it’s good to build his own brand with his personality. And, honestly, by publicly acknowledging being his own brand Askarov is already miles ahead of 99 percent of hockey players when it comes to player empowerment and market understanding.
Celebration and personality are easier to present in the hockey world with success, which Askarov has been working on building in his first North American season.
And transitioning to the North American game has taken time, Askarov admits. In Europe, with the wider ice, it’s more of a wait-and-see game for goaltenders. Teams tend to build possession longer, wait to create seams, the read-and-react buildup and being patient are vital for a European goalie.
The North American game, and this applies even more so in the minor leagues where structure isn’t as defined, is often a quantity over quality game. Shots come more frequently on the smaller ice, and Askarov said angles he’d grown up with — using the face-off dots as a point of reference for example — he had to adjust to on the fly with the Admirals.
Askarov compared it to being a pilot and landing a plane.
If a pilot was used to one runway their entire life, using various vantage points, and then had to land on a runway with completely different markings and setups they’d probably need time in a flight simulator before you allowed them to actually fly the plane.
“In (North American) hockey it’s everything is now a possible dangerous shot and players know that, they can shoot it,” Askarov said. “In Europe and in Russia, there are spots on the ice where you can just wait because you know that spot isn’t dangerous and the player isn’t going to even shoot it, if they did, it’s not hard to be ready for it.”
It’s not fair to compare anyone to Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s the best goalie in the world. But one of the things that makes Vasilevskiy the best goalie in the world, and something I watched first hand last week in Detroit, is his composure and calmness amidst the chaos.
Even when the world is moving at a ridiculous pace, Vasilevskiy is controlled and simply slowing time, like that Quicksilver scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Askarov has a bit of that element to his game in the chaotic AHL. Even when things are hectic are broken down, his crease presence and demeanor are unflappable.
Here’s some examples from this season.
Askarov made his NHL debut earlier this season back on Jan. 12, stopping 31 of 35 shots in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
He allowed a pair of goals he wanted back in the first period, but settled in at even strength over the final two periods. It was also a moment he plans to use to build forward as he works toward his eventual goal of being the No. 1 goalie in Nashville.
That will take some time, Saros is signed through 2025, which is both understandable and doesn’t change Askarov’s day-to-day approach.
One of the few hockey cliches he actually used in our conversation was just focusing on the next save and the next shot.
“When practice ends, it ends, then I think about the next shot that comes tomorrow,” Askarov said. “That’s how I think you have the best success.”
In between those shots, however, he’s willing to be himself. Even poking fun at the traditional “goalies are weird,” mantra that comes with the position.
“It’s nothing set, nothing that I have to do each day or game, sometimes I might show up and that’s the day I don’t talk to anyone, maybe I’m feeling that way,” Askarov said. “Other times it’s different, it’s just about the next shot. Next game, and remember hockey is about the fans.”
Discussing the sport as a source of entertainment is frankly refreshing coming from a player. Askarov talked directly about the fans in Milwaukee, playing off the crowd in his play and celebrations, and seeing the energy around his selection and development in Nashville.
“Growing up in Russia I knew more about NHL then Russian leagues,” Askarov said. “When I was drafted by Nashville, I just knew about the fans there, the building there. They love the team, it’s great.”
So, for the fans, how much can he bench when it’s not part of a celebration?
“Probably haven’t bench pressed for real in a couple years, I’m a goalie,” Askarov said with a laugh. “Soon enough I guess I’ll have to find out.”
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