Unlikely partners carrying Admirals in goal

📝 by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

Talented Russian prospect Yaroslav Askarov and the California cool Devin Cooley have provided the Milwaukee Admirals with the perfect odd couple in goal this season.

The unlikely pair have quickly become fast friends — especially off the ice — but are always challenging each other to best their best, carrying the Admirals (32-18-3-2, 69 points) to the heights of American Hockey League in the process.

“We’re very happy with Askarov and Cooley; it’s a good tandem and they’ve been playing really well for us,” said Admirals general manager Scott Nichol, whose team ranks seventh in the AHL in goals allowed per game (2.87). “They are both big men who are super-athletic. They are young and they push each other. If you are a goalie looking down at the other end in practice and you see the other guy is going all out and never giving up on the save, it is contagious. That is the attitude they have.”

After losing his first two career AHL starts, the 20-year-old Askarov has been stellar as a rookie for Milwaukee. Nashville’s 2020 first-round pick currently owns a superb 20-11-4 record, leading the AHL in wins by a rookie.

“Every game and every practice, I just try to enjoy playing for the Admirals,” Askarov said. “I’m excited to be here, and I just want to be the best I can be every day.”

Askarov’s 2.60 goals-against average and .910 save percentage both rank among the league’s leaders.

“[Yaroslav] is a young goalie, and it is his first time playing hockey in North America, but I think he’s in a perfect spot playing here for us,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “He’s doing a really good job, and he’s moving in the right direction. He’s handling the job well.”

Askarov spent the past three seasons with the Kontinental Hockey League’s SKA St. Petersburg franchise and its second-tier affiliate. He also represented Russia at the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2020 and 2021. Beginning his North American career this fall, Askarov had a hot hand in the early going, reeling off 10 wins in 11 starts between Oct. 28 and Dec. 1 as Milwaukee raced to the top of the Central Division.

Perhaps things came a bit too easy in the early going for the netminder, but lately Askarov has really dug in. He continues to grow and develop behind his talented squad while making the extra effort to learn from his veteran teammates.

“We have a lot of guys on our team who have a lot of experience, and guys who have played in the NHL,” Askarov said. “It has been good for me to get to watch our guys work hard in practice, prepare themselves for games, and play hard. I’ve tried to learn from that. I’ve been trying to do the same things and develop the same habits.”

Askarov recorded his first shutout on Dec. 9, a 24-save blanking of the Hartford Wolf Pack. He added another zero-goals performance on Dec. 30 against Grand Rapids.

“He has made good strides not only on the ice but off the ice too,” Taylor said. “He has grown off the ice with his preparation, his fitness, and how he goes about his business. I think you are seeing that in games. He doesn’t look tired anymore. He looks fresh in the third period, and on shifts when we get hemmed into our own end, he is staying tight.”

While Milwaukee had some low points in the early going of 2023, Askarov turned a couple of his most memorable performances around the same time, helping his team to score some crucial victories. On Feb. 10, he made a career high 45 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over rival Rockford. After making the final stop, Askarov punctuated the performance by doing pushups with his net — going viral with the memorable celebration.

Askarov then backed that up with a 38-save shootout win on the back end of the home-and-home series the next night, helping his team to a four-point weekend.

“He’s a fun kid to have in the locker room and he’s really enjoyed being here,” Admirals captain Cole Schneider said. “He’s been great for us. When we give up chances, he has been there for us. That is what we need out of him.”

Askarov credits his tandem partner Cooley as playing a big role in not only keeping him motivated in goal, but also helping him with the transition to hockey in North America.

“On the ice every day it is a battle with Devin and I, 100 percent,” Askarov said. “Off the ice we are best friends. He’s really helped me adjust to life here in the U.S., and I really appreciate all of the time he takes helping me.”

Cooley relishes the challenge of competing with the talented rookie and feels like the relationship between the two goalies has only raised his own game to new heights.

“I love playing with Asky,” Cooley said. “He’s a great goalie and he’s doing really well for us this season. It’s fun battling against him in practice and competing with each other for ice time. I think it has been good for both of us.”

Driven to compete by his rookie teammate, Cooley continues to earn starts for Milwaukee with his stellar play. Coming off of an outstanding postseason in 2022, the Los Gatos, Calif., native continues to improve in his third pro campaign. To date Cooley owns a 12-6-1 record, with a 2.96 GAA and a .908 save percentage.

“I think this year has gone really well for me,” Cooley said. “I really like our organization, and our coaching and development staff are great. But the fans, especially in Milwaukee are awesome. The environment we get to play in here is great every single night. I love playing on our home ice in front of our fans.”

Last spring, Cooley served notice he could be counted on to be a solid AHL goaltender. After spending most of the 2021-22 season as a backup to Connor Ingram, the University of Denver product stepped in when Ingram was recalled to Nashville and won his first two AHL playoff starts, each 40-plus-save performances, to help Milwaukee knock off Manitoba in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

In Game 3 of the division finals against Chicago, the eventual Calder Cup champion, Cooley stopped 47 shots as the Admirals staved off elimination.

“Last year’s playoffs was a great experience for me,” Cooley said. “I was in a backup role pretty much all year to Connor, but that playoff run was basically the chance for me to prove to myself that I could do it, and that I could take the reins if needed too. It just gave me a ton of confidence and it was a blast playing in those games.”

That performance cemented Cooley’s self-confidence at the AHL level, and that has carried over to 2022-23.

“Cools has played really well for us this year,” Taylor said. “He came in late in the season last year, played outstanding and helped us win a playoff series for the first time in 12 years. Lately he’s had a great run. He has been playing well and his record as of late speaks for itself. Our goalie depth is something we are really happy with.”

While Askarov gets the majority of the starts in Milwaukee, Cooley’s work ethic is really appreciated by his teammates.

“Asky’s been playing a lot lately, but Cools is one of the hardest workers on our team,” Schneider said. “When he’s not playing, he’s helping us in practice get better. When he is playing, he’s working just as hard.”

Milwaukee’s players know they are good hands with either Cooley or Askarov in the net behind them.

“Both of our goalies have done a great job for us this year,” Admirals defenseman Jordan Gross said. “Both have stepped up and carried the load when it is their time to play. We have confidence in whomever gets the net every night.”

With the regular season winding down, Askarov and Cooley know they will be counted on to carry Milwaukee into the Calder Cup Playoffs next month.

“With either goalie, we are happy to have them back there in goal for us,” Schneider said. “We will be counting on both of those guys for the stretch run.”