Artur Akhtyamov… Better than Yaroslav Askarov? – TheLeafsNation

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In the 2020 NHL Entry draft completed yesterday, a healthy number of goalies were selected, with 20 of the 216 players being netminders. That’s 9.2% percent of the selections, while they represent 10% of your dressed roster in each NHL game. The Leafs chose one of those 20, in Artur Akhtyamov, a Russian comrade to the only goalie selected in the first round, Yaroslav Askarov.

It’s healthy to pose the question whether Akhtyamov could surprise and end up better than Askarov in the end. After all, goalies are voodoo, and plenty of other highly drafted goalies have not worked out as expected, our own Jack Campbell being near the top of that list. However, it’d be ridiculous to say, with any element of credibility, that Akhtyamov will be better than Askarov.

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Whoops! (I did not “eat the onion” as they say, I know Bobby is being facetious. He’s the best at it).

All kidding aside, if it were possible to know that, obviously the draft positions would look a lot different. That doesn’t take the possibility out of the question though.

In Askarov and Akhtyamov’s respective careers thus far, they only have one season where you can really make direct comparisons: the 2018-19 season where they both played in the Russian under-20 league, the MHL. Askarov, for SKA St. Petersburg’s MHL affiliate SKA-Varyagi im. Morozova, played a total of 35 games with a save percentage of 91.8%. Akhtyamov, for Ak Bars Kazan’s MHL affiliate Irbis Kazan, played 54 games with a save percentage of 92.1%.

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Despite their numeric performance not being all that different at that point in time, Askarov was obviously drafted much higher. Why is that? Let’s dig a littler deeper.

1. RANKINGS

Here’s how this 2020 NHL Draft worked out for goalies:

Name Draft Position NHL CSS Ranking (EU and NA Goalies) Bob McKenzie Ranking DobberProspects Ranking
Yaroslav Askarov 11th EU # 1 11th 11th
Drew Commesso 46th NA # 2 87th 71st
Joel Blomqvist 51st EU # 3 HM unranked
Leevi Merilainen 70th unranked unranked unranked
Calle Clang 76th EU # 4 HM unranked
Nico Daws 83rd NA # 1 64th 56th
Danil Chechelev 95th unranked unranked unranked
Dylan Garand 102nd NA # 6 unranked unranked
Artur Akhtyamov 105th unranked unranked unranked
Jan Bednar 106th EU # 2 71st unranked
Juho Markkanen 111th EU # 6 unranked unranked
Jesper Vikman 124th EU # 8 unranked unranked
Jakub Dobes 135th NA # 20 unranked unranked
Will Cranley 162nd NA # 4 unranked unranked
Garin Bjorklund 178th NA # 5 unranked unranked
Remi Poirier 184th NA # 13 unranked unranked
Amir Miftakhov 185th EU # 5 unranked unranked
Devon Levi 211th NA # 8 unranked unranked
Henrik Tikkanen 213th unranked unranked unranked

Aktyamov going unranked by NHL CSS is surprising, though it’s probably more to do with the fact that they only rank 10 EU goalies when 11 actually got drafted, while they ranked 20 NA goalies, of whom only 9 were drafted. Each team also has its own scouting team that will eclipse what NHL CSS does. In the case of Bob McKenzie, his rankings are based on what he hears from NHL scouts, not his own scouting, so Akhtyamov not placing there means that the people Bob was talking to weren’t talking about him. Your own scout’s opinions on a player are paramount when it comes to whether you select that player, but where you select a player has to depend a lot on what you feel other teams are up to. Akhtyamov not being a high-profile prospect probably should have led him to be drafted even later in this draft, even though his numbers in the MHL are great.

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2. FASTER GRADUATION

From the 2018-19 season that we already mentioned, where both goalies were in the MHL (Russian junior league), the graduation path has been somewhat different. In 2019-20, Askarov graduated to the VHL, the farm league for the KHL like the AHL is for the NHL, while Akhtyamov stayed in the MHL. They both improved on their prior seasons, with Akhtyamov posting a 93.1% save percentage for Irbis Kazan again, while Askarov posted a 92.0% for SKA-Neva St. Petersburg, the VHL club.

In this 2020-21 season, Akhtyamov started in the MHL again but has seen time in the VHL, playing great so far in both leagues. He’s also now on the KHL roster as the backup, with no apparent injury to last year’s tandem Bilyalov and Reidenberg. Askarov is similarly backing up in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg, playing 3 of their 14 games so far, and looking excellent already.

It’s not totally fair to Akhtyamov to judge him for not having as many opportunities at higher leagues because he was playing behind Ak Bars Kazan’s other young goaltending product Amir Miftakhov, who is one year older and thus more likely to get those opportunities. The Kazan organization seemingly prioritized the development of Miftakhov over Akhtyamov, which was probably due to their age.

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That said, for a 19-year-old to be playing for one of the two biggest clubs in Russia is spectacular. Askarov is on pace to play about 13 games in the KHL this season. It remains to be seen if Akhtyamov or Miftakhov will actually play games for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL.

The only other goalies last 10 years to play 13 games or more are shown below (bolded are draft-eligible seasons, others are draft+1 seasons like this one for the goalies drafted in the 2020 draft). As you’ll see, it’s pretty solid company. Others in this club include Sergei Bobrosky and Semyon Varlamov, who together with Vasilevsky in the list below cover the majority of the recent starting goalies from Russia to make the NHL. Anton Khudobin did not make a KHL roster until his draft+3 season.

2019-20

None

2018-19

None

2017-18

None

2016-17

2015-16

2014-15

2013-14

2012-13

None

2011-12

None

2010-11

None

3. AGE

Askarov is actually 8 months younger than Akhtyamov, making his graduation track all the more impressive. That’s not to say Akhtyamov is behind the curve, just that Askarov is well ahead of it. If Askarov were born 2 months later, he’d be in the 2021 NHL draft. If Akhtyamov were born 2 months earlier, he would have been eligible for the 2019 NHL draft.

I won’t subject you to much verbosity here, since the point is rather simple. Askarov being younger means that he has about 8 months of physical development still to go to catch up to Akhtyamov, and only once they’re both ~21 will this start to become a diminishing factor.

4. WORLD JUNIORS

Right or wrong, having your name said often during the World Junior Championship (WJC)  is a great way to boost your draft stock. Starting for Team Russia in the 2020 U-20 WJC at 17 years old, Askarov didn’t exactly shine, but just being there is enough to pique the interest of draft analysts, whether legitimate or snake oil sellers. Daniil Isayev (undrafted) and Amir Miftakhov (selected this year by Tampa in his draft+1 season) were Russia’s other two goalies, and Miftakhov actually overtook Askarov for the starting job.

Along with the U-20 tournament, Askarov also played 6 games for the U-18 team in 2018-19, leading them to a Silver Medal performance. He also started for Russia in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament in 2019, and the World Junior A Championship team for Russia also in 2018-19, where they also won Silver. Suffice it to say that Askarov is Russia’s top choice for International Junior play right now.

Similar to above, I won’t belabour this point, but it stands to be at least somewhat relevant to the comparison between Askarov and Akhtyamov.

Obviously, Askarov’s profile is a lot higher right now than Akhtyamov’s, and there’s lots of good and not so good reasons for that. Akhtyamov going unranked by NHL CSS and Bob McKenzie probably indicates his position was not high in most teams’ eyes. He has had a much slower development path than Askarov so far, which has to call more attention to Askarov. He’s a good chunk older than Askarov, meaning he’s got steps ahead in physical development that should be boosting his performance. And lastly, Akhtyamov will probably never get the opportunity to represent Russia in the WJC.

Altogether, despite all the above reasons why Akhtyamov is not Askarov, there’s reason to be excited. Akhtyamov is splitting the starting role with Miftakhov for Bars Kazan (VHL), and has outperformed him in the early going. Neither is likely to feature in the KHL because Ak Bars Kazan has a strong starter in Bilyalov, capably backed up by Adam Reideborn. However, Akhtyamov is currently backing up Bilyalov in today’s game against Vityaz Podolsk, and it remains to be seen what his spot in the depth chart will be exactly throughout the season.

To answer the question posited by the title: Akhtyamov probably is not better than Askarov. It remains to be seen if Akhtyamov can even hold his own in a men’s league, let alone a second tier men’s league like the KHL. However, an optimist can find reason to be encouraged that Akhtyamov is a project worth taking on, given that he’s yet to post a sub-92% season in any of the Russian leagues. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post where we go more in depth into Akhtyamov’s development thus far, and a comparison will be drawn to the more apt competitor for Akhtyamov, the goalie selected just one pick after him, Detroit’s Jan Bednar.

References

Artur Akhtyamov Elite Prospects page

Yaroslav Askarov Elite Prospects page

Amir Miftakhov Elite Prospects page

Plus a bunch of other pages from Elite Prospects because that site is amazing.