Since Ray Shero has become General Manager of the New Jersey Devils, the Devils have drafted a goalie in every year. I have been on record on this site about how I do not like goaltenders being drafted, especially with a higher pick. However, I must accept what has been happening instead of what I would like to see happen. I also must point out in selecting Gilles Senn in 2017, the team demonstrated that they are willing to draft an overage player out of Europe, monitor how he does abroad, and then sign him to an entry level contract before his rights expired. Since I now expect one netminder to be picked this year based on history and knowing that the pipeline is filled with goalies, I might as well suggest that the Devils look at another overage goaltender prospect to add to the system. And not just any overage goaltender prospect, but someone who excelled in 2018-19: Ilya Konovalov.
Who is Ilya Konovalov?
Ilya Konovalov is a goaltender from Yaroslavl, Russia. He is also someone who has been passed over multiple times. Konovalov is 20 years old with a July 13, 1998 birthdate. This means he was eligible in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 NHL Entry Drafts. However, since he is not yet 21, he must go through the 2019 NHL Entry Draft before he can become eligible for free agency with respect to the National Hockey League. So if not now, then he may become some team’s offseason signing in the future.
Konovalov is from Yaroslavl, Russia and has grown up as a player in the Lokomotiv Yarolslavl system. According to his Elite Prospects profile, with the exception of 12 games for HK Ryazan, Konovalvo has been with the Lokomotiv club in both the Junior Hockey League (MHL) and the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). His profile points to a possible reason why he has been passed over multiple times: his size. Konovalov is just 6’0” and 194 pounds. The trend for goaltenders is to have large frames; that extra inch of height and reach can make a difference between a goal or a save. That is a drawback for Konovalov. Another possible reason is a lack of exposure. Unless someone has been scouting the MHL and Lokomotiv’s team closely, scouts may have missed out on Konovalov. Outside of two appearances at the U-20 level, there is no major international tournament where Konovalov would have had a chance to shine. Other Russian goaltenders being selected ahead of him are also telling signs. So why consider him now?
Easy: Konovalov was given the opportunity to play with the main Lokomotiv team in the KHL in 2018-19. He excelled in a talented professional league, arguably the strongest in Europe. According to the KHL’s regular season stats, Konovalov played in 45 games - the KHL regular season is 60 games - and posted an overall save percentage of 93% with ten shutouts. Among goaltenders with at least 20 games, Konovalov’s 93% was the tenth best in the whole league. His ten shutouts was tied with Igor Shestyorkin (2014, NYR) for second in the KHL, one behind Ilya Sorokin (2014, NYI). As noted in his EP profile, Konovalov was named KHL rookie of the month twice, goaltender of the month once, and KHL rookie of the week five separate times. A season after winning the MHL championship with Loko Yaroslavl and being named MHL Playoff MVP, Konovalov more than proved himself at the next level in 2018-19. He played in a lot of games, earned the top job on his team, and was among the league’s better goaltenders. It all may be enough to catch the eyes of several NHL teams.
This brings me to one last thing to know about Konovalov: his contract. Elite Prospects lists his contract as ending in 2020-21. His contract will end shortly before his draft rights would expire. A team can pick him now and sign him to an entry-level contract after fulfilling his deal with Yaroslavl in two seasons. That’s two seasons to further refine his game and build on his sensational rookie campaign. There would have to be some effort put in to convince him to or confirm that he would want to go to North America at the end of his deal. But the timing works out pretty well for anyone who wants to pick him this year.
Where is Ilya Konovalov Ranked?
Rankings are not everything and plenty can change between now and June. Still, they can provide a general idea as to whether a prospect is worth getting excited over. Several sites do not have their final rankings ready, so there some mid-season ones included for compeltion’s sake. Also, some rank goalies separate from skaters - others do not separate them.
- NHL Central Scouting Services: European Goaltenders - 5 (Midterm), 4 (Final)
- Steve Kournianos - The Draft Analyst: Not Ranked in Main Rankings, 108th in Top 425 Overagers (January 2018)
- Larry Fisher - The Hockey Writers: 84 (Top 300, April 2019), 62 (Top 300, March 2019), Not ranked prior
Not many rank overagers and even among those few ranks, Konovalov is not really set for a high tier. While Central Scouting Services has him in their top five among European goaltenders, that means little. Konovalov has been similarly ranked in the past and he was not drafted. Larry Fisher of The Hockey Writers has Konovalov in his top one hundred for April; Konovalov was unranked before then. I would imagine his KHL season opened up his eyes. But not many from other ranking services. Even so, I do not anticipate that he’ll crack any top 31 ratings.
What Others Say About Ilya Konovalov
There is not a lot out there about Konovalov. However, Jokke Nevalainen has written up his observations of Konovalov up at Dobber Prospects. The middle part of his write up is the highlight:
He doesn’t have the type of size teams are usually looking for in goalies but he’s quick and agile, isn’t afraid to leave the blue paint to challenge attackers, and he has a good glove as well. His situation is a bit similar to Veini Vehviläinen’s, another average-sized goalie who was also passed over thrice but finally got drafted after proving himself at the pro level.
I appreciate that Nevalainen brought up Vehvilainen. His situation does appear to be a little similar. Vehvilainen did have more pro experience with JYP before he was finally drafted. He had represented Finland at the U-18 and U-20 levels. However, it was not until Vehvilainen had a very good season with Karpat in the Finnish Liiga before Columbus drafted him in the sixth round in 2018. Vehvilainen is a little larger than Konovalov at 6’1” but the point remains about his lack of a notably large frame hurt his cause of being picked. I also appreciate Nevalainen briefly touching on Konovalov’s traits in net too.
In order to learn even more about Konovalov, I reached out to two people who follow Russian players and the KHL closely. There is limited coverage of both in English, and yet prospects and players come and go from the KHL. Therefore, I recommend that you follow the people I interviewed if you’re interested in keeping up with what is going on there.
First up is Viktor Fomich, better known on Twitter as Russian Prospects (@RUSProspects). As you would guess by the username, he tweets and posts about prospective players in Russia and the KHL. I asked him about Konovalov in general and I am gracious for him taking the time to answer each of them:
All About the Jersey (AAtJ): Konovalov has had a great rookie season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Was this a surprise, or was this somewhat expected given his play in the MHL?
Viktor Fomich (VF): It was quite a surprise, as he was not even picked for the World Junior Championships last year. However, he has showed some flashes of potential in the KHL last season. [JF Note: He did play in 7 KHL games in 2017-18.]
AAtJ: Based on what you have seen, what are Konovalov’s strengths as a goalie?
VF: Konovalov has very good lateral movement; he has a pretty refined technique overall. He is also very calm for his age too. Judging from what I heared, he is also a hard worker.
AAtJ: Likewise, what areas does he need improvement in? Are they areas that can be improved?
VF: He is not a big goalie, so the top shelf is where he can be beaten. He also does not look too good at using his stick and certainly allows some rebounds that he should not allow. Also, he has been shaky in the big games, but I guess it is OK for his age.
AAtJ: The concern with any rookie is whether they just had a very good run of games, especially for a goalie. Do you think Konovalov can repeat what he did this season? What are his expectations for 2019-20?
VF: I am not sure if he can repeat that kind of season in terms of those stats since they do not solely depend on him. However, the general expectation is that he should continue to be Lokomotiv’s starting goaltender.
AAtJ: This will be Konovalov’s fourth NHL draft and he was passed over in the previous three. Do you think this is the year he gets picked? Why or why not?
VF: I think he will be picked this time. There are not many goalie prospects who are starters at this level of hockey, much less with his amazing stats. The goalie draft class is not too good this year.
AAtJ: Konovalov has two more years on his contract with Lokomotiv. Do you know whether he would be interested in coming to North America?
VF: Hockey players are pretty ambitious and, in general, they are interested in trying to make it to the NHL. Konovalov himself has said that the NHL is a goal too. But, as always, it depends on a lot of factors, with the main one being how is career progresses.
Thank you to Viktor Fomich for taking the time to answer my questions. Again, follow him on Twitter at @RUSProspects for news and opinion about Russian prospects.
For an additional perspective, I asked similar questions to Patrick Conway, who runs Conway’s Russian Hockey Blog. It is one of the few English-language blogs that focuses on the Russian leagues that is out there. If that interests you, then do not hesitate to bookmark it and check it out on a regular basis. Conway graciously took the time to answer my questions, which follows:
All About the Jersey (AAtJ): Konovalov had a great season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. I would like to learn more about how he became their top goaltender. Did he have a lot of competition going into last season? Did someone get hurt or was unavailable and Konovalv played his way into being a starter? Or was it planned that he would take over in 2018-19?
Patrick Conway (PC): Lokomotiv signed a very good, very experienced, KHL netminder last summer in Alexander Salák, and the plan was that Konovalov would be brought along very gently with Salák getting most of the starts. But Salák got hurt early in the season, and Konovalov flat-out took the starter’s job away from him. Salák barely got a game even after he was healthy again. Konovalov did have a little bit of a rough time as he settled in right after Salák’s injury, but was pretty much excellent thereafter.
AAtJ: What would you say are Konovalov’s strengths as a goaltender? What does he do as a goaltender that stands out compared to other KHL goalies?
PC: Konovalov basically has all the tools except size, which isn’t his fault, without any of them particularly standing out. He’s quite athletic although he does not play a really “acrobatic” style. He deals with the angles well and has good reflexes. I would say that his main strength is that he has few, if any, bad habits, which is a credit to Lokomotiv’s goalie coaches, Jaakko Valkama with the senior team and Yegor Podomatsky with the juniors.
AAtJ: Similarly, what parts of Konovalov’s goaltending do you think needs improvement? Could he improve those things over time?
PC: He just needs more experience, mostly, and to learn how to handle the rigors of a long season. 2018-19 was, I believe, the longest season he has had in terms of number of games played at any level, and he was definitely fading by the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. I suspect fatigue was a big factor there. [JF Note: Conway is right, Konovalov played in a total of 53 games for Lokomotiv and two for Russia in 2018-19 - the most in a single season in his young career as per Elite Prospects.]
AAtJ: Konovalov has put up some great seasons with Yaroslavl’s youth and developmental teams. However, he has very little international experience. Is there any reason why he was not selected to play for Russian U-18 teams or given more consideration for the U-20 teams? Were other goalies in his age group really better or was there something else going on?
PC: He’s actually been a little bit of a late bloomer as an elite goalie -- his numbers in Lokomotiv’s youth system were good, but except for the 2017-18 playoffs, they were not among the best in the league. And there were usually goalies at Lokomotiv with better numbers. He did get a long look from the 2017-18 Russian World Juniors team, but they decided that some other guys were better, and that was a reasonable enough decision to make at the time. He would certainly not have been overlooked as a goalie in Lokomotiv’s system; the youth national team bosses pay a lot of attention to that club.
AAtJ: Konovalov had a great rookie season. As with all rookies, especially goaltenders, there is always a question about whether it was one great season or a sign of things to come. Do you think Konovalov can be as good as he was in 2019-20 for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl? What do you think his expectations are for next season and beyond?
PC: Well, that is the question -- I’m always a bit leery of late-blooming goalies until they show that they can maintain a high level. I do not see any reason why he cannot keep up his good play next season, but I need to see him do it!
And he is still quite young for a KHL goalie, so I will not be surprised if he goes back to being Lokomotiv’s back-up or “1B starter” in 2019-20, with a capable veteran around to keep things steady. Not Salák, who is reportedly moving on. Konovalov may also be in line for some time in the VHL, with Lokomotiv’s farm team, which was Lada Togliatti in 2018-19, although I am not sure if their affiliation agreement will continue into next season.
AAtJ: According to Elite Prospects, his contract ends after the 2020-21 season. Should he get drafted this year by a NHL team, he could then be signed. It is not yet known if he will be drafted. In case he does, would he sign? Do you know if he has shown any interest or desire to play in the NHL?
PC: That, I am not sure about. Since he only started to catch the attention relatively recently, there was never really any serious talk previously about him moving overseas. One thing that might encourage him to try North America is the fact that Lokomotiv have some very good young goalies coming up right behind him - Daniil Isayev, notably, but there are others. So things may get a bit crowded in the crease in Yaroslavl. For now, we’ll see if he gets drafted - I think he will be - and then the discussions about North America will start.
Thank you to Patrick Conway. Follow his blog, Conway’s Russian Hockey Blog, for further news and analysis of what is happening in the KHL, VHL, MHL, Russian women’s hockey, and more.
Between the two interviews, it is confirmation for me that Konovalov has plenty of good qualities with some work to do. Both Conway and Fomich noted how his movement is a plus. Both Conway and Fomich pointed out how his size is an issue. Fomich specifically noted that his stick work and rebound control can be issues. Conway noted that fatigue and inexperience were issues. I would like to think all of it can be worked on - except for the size. Whoever wants Konovalov is just going to have to deal with it. Conway is a little more down on his potential 2019-20 than Fomich; however, both recognized how well he did last season and how that sets him up for the future. They also both think he will be picked and if the opportunity arises, he could be interested in coming over.
A Little Video
There is more video of violinist Ilya Konovalov instead of the goaltender Ilya Konovalov. However, I found two videos of the Lokomotiv goaltender putting in the work. First, from Youtube, here is a package of saves he made in a regular season game against Spartak Moscow. This was from the November 16, 2018 game that Lokomotiv won 3-1. Konovalov made 24 saves.
The second clip is at Dailymotion, a video site similar to Youtube. Based on the final score and the opponent, I believe this dates back to Lokomotiv’s 2-0 win over Avangard Omsk on December 22, 2018. This was one of Konovalov’s ten shutouts. Konovalov certainly earned this one as he made 42 saves out of 42 shots. Here’s the long highlight reel from that game:
Between both clips, here is what I observed:
- While he is not large, Konovalov looks pretty quick going post to post. He also has some strong legs. 23 seconds into the Spartak clip, he quickly blocks off the right post and keeps his pad stiff to stuff Zubov before the net is dislodged. Likewise, his movement in the crease just a minute in shows him moving swiftly into and out of a butterfly or half-butterfly formation within the crease. Also, he can cover both posts in a butterfly position, as seen at about the 51 second mark into the Spartak clip. I noticed that he sometimes does a couple of short push-offs with one leg while standing, but he was otherwise gliding within (and outside) of his crease.
- His reactions are also quick. In the Avangard video, at about 39 seconds in, he stops a long shot, there is a rebound, but he alertly paddled the puck away safely to the corner before an Omsk player could get to it. As another example, he left a short rebound after a long shot at about 2:09 into the same video but he quickly covered it up to prevent any put-back opportunity by Omsk. And again at about 2:59.
- To help account for his frame, Konovalov is more than comfortable to be aggressive at cutting off the shooter’s angle. That appears to be his preference and I respect it. Many times in the Spartak video, he will get one or two feet ahead of the crease and get close to a position. He is quick enough to get back and react to the shot, such as his glove save at 1:52 in the Spartak video. In the Avangard video, he and his team were under siege many times which limited it somewhat. However, he still got to the crease line or ahead of it whenever he could and in a situation where he would not need to be deeper.
- This is probably minor, but he did not look good at playing the puck behind the net at 3:52 in the Spartak clip. He did not get his stick on it, he tried to trap it but that only slowed the puck’s path resulting in non-chalantly knocking the puck away. Between the two, this was the only video of him leaving his crease entirely to go after a puck. Such a thing is not as crucial as making saves, but pretty much all goalies have to deal with dump-ins and handling pucks outside of opposition shots. It is something to keep an eye for.
- Konovalov does not appear to get rattled by traffic or scrums in front of him. He tracked pucks through screens in the Spartak video. The very first play in the Avangard video has a whole lot of bodies in front of him, a puck getting loose. Konovalov managed to figure out where the puck went, made a nice stop, get back up after traffic dissipated, and freeze the play with a good looking glove save after his teammates turned the puck over again. There are further examples in the Avangard video, such as the sequence from 2:54 to 3:00. The reaction after getting sprawled out at 5:22 is also a highlight in Konovalov’s favor.
- I question Konovalov’s rebound control. It was not that big of an issue in the Spartak clip but the Avangard Omsk game is littered with them. Eor example, at 6:00 there is a big one, he failed to trap the shot. I understand that both are extended highlight videos but some of these were not highlights. Konovalov reacted well to a lot of them but it makes me wonder if there are further refinements he needs to make with his form. It could be just that one game, too. And he did make the initial stops. Still, it only created more work for him and it partially explains why he faced 42 shots at all.
- But when he is able to, Konovalov’s glove is a stand out. It comes out his formation quickly. He can be flashy with how he catches it. It looks effortless at its best. Konovalov’s glove shined towards the end of the Avangard video, such as at 7:15 when he robbed an Omsk player on a one-timer.
While these are two extended highlight videos, I do appreciate that both were not in January, when Konovalov was so hot he was the KHL’s Goalie of the Month. They both show Konovalov on successful nights but they also show a lot of different kinds of plays. A lot of the saves will not necessarily get you out of your seat. From the two videos, I think plenty of what Fomich and Conway pointed out are justified.
Based on my viewings alone, I feel comfortable stating that while Konovalov is not big, he can and does try to make himself look big on shots with his aggressive play in the crease. He is quite quick in his skating and with his reactions off shots. He is fluid in going down to a butterfly and half-butterfly stance. His glove hand is notable when he is able to get into a rhythm with it. The rebound control is a concern and the few times he used his stick was also not encouraging either. I wonder if he could stand to be more efficient in his movements and going into formations; but that could come with further coaching and experience. Overall, I see a goalie that could use plenty of refinement. Can his play be refined? He’s 20 now so I would think so, but some areas will need more work than others.
An Opinion of Sorts
As noted in the beginning of this profile, the Devils have consistently drafted goaltenders. In the case of Senn, they are not afraid of overage goaltender prospects. Therefore, we should expect the Devils to take another netminder in 2019. I think they can do a lot worse than Konovalov.
Sure, his game is not perfect but there is a lot to like. The quick movements are a plus. The glove can be a plus. The aggressive play in the crease can also be a plus. Most of all, he went from success in the youth leagues to the MHL to a very successful rookie season in the KHL. Yes, there are issues and he will never be a bigger goalie. Yet, he is coming off a campaign where he was among the best goaltenders in the KHL, which is arguably Europe’s top league. As noted by Fomich and Conway, he has plenty going for him as a “late bloomer” of a goalie prospect and this year’s class of goalies may not be that strong. There is no guarantee that the fourth time for the NHL Draft will be the charm but I think he has done more than enough to justify one team to select him.
That team could very well be the Devils. While they would have to wait until his contract ends in 2021, Konovalov would be 23 with two more professional seasons worth of practices, sessions, and game experience under his belt. The Devils may have more than enough goaltenders in their system right now. But it can look a lot different in two years. Senn and Evan Cormier will see their entry level contracts end in 2021; who knows if they are worth keeping around at the AHL level. Likewise, who knows whether Akira Schmid would turn out to be anyone. Plus, Schneider will be 35 with one year left on his contract after the 2020-21 season and we can only hope Mackenzie Blackwood continues to meet expectations by then too. There is a possibility that Devils could use a more experienced goaltender like Konovalov to potentially join the organization right when his deal with Yaroslavl ends. Rather than wait until he is a free agent and compete with other teams in 2021, the Devils could just get his rights in June and have the inside track to have him come to New Jersey. Based on what Fomich and Conway stated, coming over is a possibility.
Continuing the comparison to Vehvilainen by Nevalainen, I do think Konovalov could be secured with a late draft pick. Vehvilainen was a sixth round selection last year. If he is available in the fifth, sixth, or seventh round, the Devils would be shrewd to use one of those later picks to add to their goaltender depth. I could be convinced that he may be worth a fourth round pick too; but I think he would be better value for those last three picks. His potential ceiling may not be as high as an 17 or 18 year old prospect, but what Konovalov has done and his traits are worth the late flyer in my view.
That’s my take on Ilya Konovalov. You may have a different opinion. What do you think of what you have learned about Ilya Konovalov? What do you think of his play as a goaltender? What sticks out to you, good or bad? Do you think he has done enough to not get passed over in a fourth NHL Draft? Is this a player you think the Devils should draft? Where do you think he will go in the draft? If you have seen him play, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Ilya Konovalov in the comments.
Thanks again to Viktor Fomich (@RUSProspects) and Patrick Conway of Conway’s Russian Hockey Blog for answering questions about Konovalov. Their insight and time taken to answer my questions is appreciated. As always, thank you for reading.