What If New Jersey Devils Drafted Yaroslav Askarov Instead of Alexander Holtz?

The New Jersey Devils have been on a decade-long odyssey to find their next franchise goalie, but what would have happened if they had not passed up their best chance to find one in 2020?

2020 NHL Draft - Round One
2020 NHL Draft - Round One / Mike Stobe/GettyImages
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The Next Few Years (2020-2023)

The Devils signed Crawford just two days after the 2020 Draft. He still retires shortly into training camp the next season in this alternate history. The 2020-2022 goalie rogues gallery still plays out as it did in our reality, resulting in the Devils stumbling to the #4 pick (Luke Hughes) and the #2 pick (Simon Nemec) in consecutive years. 

A scenario where the Devils signed Linus Ullmark in July 2021 instead of Jonathan Bernier would have been lovely. In hindsight, that was a disastrous mistake. That alternate universe misses out on the beautiful bromance of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, but maybe instead, MacKenzie Blackwood is on the receiving end of Ullmark’s celebratory post-game hugs.

Linus Ullmark, Jeremy Swayman
Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins / Richard T Gagnon/GettyImages

However, it is probably unrealistic to expect the Devils to have committed four years to Ullmark instead of the two they committed to Bernier. 

Instead, the first large deviation from the Devils goalie acquisition strategy comes at the 2022 NHL Draft. Askarov signed his entry-level deal with Nashville in May of 2022. In this alternate timeline, he does the same with the Devils and joins Utica for the 2022-23 season. At the draft, not wanting to block their future franchise goaltender, the Devils elect not to trade substantial assets for 1A goaltender. They bypass the trade that sent Vitek Vanecek to New Jersey from the Capitals for a third-round pick and a swap of 2nd rounders. 

There’s still a chance the Devils take Michigan University standout Seamus Casey at 37 instead of 46 overall, but perhaps they should instead draft Fraser Minten, who went 38th to Toronto. Alexander Suzdalev, whom the Capitals took with the third-round pick, was recently ranked as the 14th-best prospect in the Capitals system. He’s a Devils prospect in our timeline. 

Instead of trading for and then extending Vanecek, the Devils instead look to fill their 1A goalie next to Blackwood in free agency during the summer of 2022. There were some interesting names available, but the Devils probably steer clear of Darcy Keumper or Jack Campbell and the five-year deals they got. Instead, let’s give them back Eric Comrie, who Devils management liked enough to claim back in 2020. He signs a two-year deal, similar to the one he got with Buffalo in reality.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Dawson Mercer has his breakout 56-point 2022-23 season on the Predators instead of the Devils. The alt-timeline Predators aren’t as disastrously bad as they were in the real ’22-’23 season, which means Poile doesn’t spend his last trade deadline frantically selling off everything that wasn’t tied down to his roster. Mattias Ekholm doesn’t go to Edmonton. Poile doesn’t pull off the Tanner Jeannot heist against Tampa. Alt-timeline Kyle Dubas doesn’t dump Mikael Granlund on San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal because Granlund is still a Predator. Heck, maybe alt-timeline Kyle Dubas is still the GM of the Maple Leafs.

Florida, which has struggled to incorporate 2020 draft pick wing Quinn into its lineup, is not nearly as dominant in this universe in 2022. They come in third in the Atlantic Division instead of their Presidents Trophy-winning run in the real 2022. Unlike Lundell, who is a natural fit on the Panthers and helped them fill out their center depth, Quinn struggles in a top-nine role. Florida, needing to find a top-line wing, still makes the all-in trade for Matthew Tkachuk in the 2022 offseason, but instead of Mackenzie Weegar going to Calgary, Jack Quinn joins Jonathan Huberdeau in the trade.

During the 2023 season, an Eric Comrie-lead Devils do not set the franchise record for points in a season. But a November injury to Mackenzie Blackwood opens the door for Askarov to make his debut. The Devils make the playoffs in third place in the Metropolitan Division behind a dynamic offense and a strong rookie season from Askarov. Tom Fitzgerald rewards the upstart Devils by trading for Timo Meier at the deadline, moving Braden Schneider, Fabian Zetterlund, Justin Sourdif, a first, and a conditional second to San Jose.

Askarov leads the Devils to a surprise 1st round victory against the Rangers in his first taste of postseason play. But they are still beaten by the Carolina Hurricanes, who go on to be steamrolled by the Presidents Trophy winning Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Weegar, who was exceptional for Calgary in the real 2023 season, helps lead a dominant Panthers team to a Stanley Cup victory in 2023.

In the 2023 offseason, knowing they need to improve their 1B behind Askarov, the Devils trade Eric Comrie to San Jose Sharks for Kaapo Kahkonen. Calgary, unable to give Yegor Sharangovich top-six minutes at the expense of the recently acquired Jack Quinn, does not ask for him back from the Devils in the trade that sends the Devils Tyler Toffoli. Instead, Kevin Bahl is paired with the third-round pick to replace the top-four minutes the Flames need without having acquired Weegar. Sharangovich remains with the Devils in a third-line role.

That brings us to the most recent developments in the Devils goalie odyssey, the 2024 season and trade deadline.