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The Straight Edge: Kid Stoppers Starting Up

NHL teams dragged their feet on young goalies for years, but the next generation of masked men refuses to be ignored.

Not to put any undue pressure on Carter Hart this season, but if the 21-year-old can be the starter the Philadelphia Flyers have needed for, oh, decades now, he very well might change the entire trajectory of NHL goaltending
development. So, no pressure, kid.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic, but there’s an interesting trend happening in hockey right now, and it’s worth exploring: younger NHL goalies are being entrusted with big roles.

Hart, who played exceptionally well as a 20-year-old rookie with the Flyers in 31 games last season, is the most recent
example but not the first. For that, we turn back the clock a few seasons to Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. As we all know, Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2016, shortly after turning 22. The lanky and spectacular stopper had played just one year of pro hockey, in
the AHL, before that and had only logged 13 regular-season games with Pittsburgh prior to that magical post-season run. The next year, Murray again helped Pittsburgh to a title.

So a 22-year-old goalie can win a Cup in Pittsburgh. A 21-year-old goalie can be a starter in Philadelphia. Let’s keep pulling on this string. At the 2019 draft, the Florida Panthers selected netminder Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick. That’s the highest draft slot for a goalie since Jack Campbell went 11th overall to Dallas in 2010 and higher than Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th overall in 2012) was picked. And in several of the years in between, no netminder was taken in the first round. A hive mindset was developing in the NHL that goalies took so long to mature and were so hard to scout that waiting until Day 2 of the draft was the more prudent path to success.

Knight is a fantastic goalie prospect, but this year’s draft class brings another young netminder who may break the current orthodox wide open. His name is Yaroslav Askarov, and I call him ‘The Dreamkiller.’ Askarov has everything you want in a goalie, and he has demonstrated himself to be incredibly clutch. Last year’s American entry at the world under-18s was supposedly destined for gold thanks to a ridiculous squad led by Jack Hughes, Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte. Askarov stoned them in the semifinal (though Sweden ended up taking gold). A few months later, Canada went into the under-18 Hlinka-Gretzky tournament having won gold in 10 of the past 11 tries. Askarov swiped the championship from the Canucks in the final.

Which is a long way of saying Askarov could go in the top 10 at the draft this year, much like Carey Price did in 2005. A goalie in the top 10, you say? Yeah, it could happen. And I propose that part of the reason – on top of Askarov’s otherworldly talent – is that NHL teams can look at Hart and Murray and realize that just like today’s elite young skaters, it might not take five or six years before a goalie prospect contributes to his NHL team. Vasilevskiy was getting starts with Tampa Bay when he was 20, and he’s no longer the exception to the rule. So if you can fill the most important job on the team with an elite talent who is ready in three years, why wouldn’t you pull the trigger early?

The amusing part in all of this is that one orthodoxy seems to be fading away while the one before it remains. Small players are still penalized in the draft, as we saw in 2019 when the 5-foot-7 Caufield remained on the board at No. 15. That was great news for the Montreal Canadiens, especially now that the gifted right winger is pounding the NCAA with goals as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, but I bet more than a few teams who picked ahead of the Habs are smarting already for worrying if the kid could produce at the next level.

One day, teams will learn to shed their misguided preconceptions on draft day, and it appears that it’s already happened with goaltenders. It won’t even be brave when a team snaps up Askarov early this summer. It will be smart.

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