When the Columbus Blue Jackets signed Matiss Kivlenieks in the summer of 2017, the thought was he'd spend his first professional season getting his feet wet with the AHL's Cleveland Monsters.
Instead, he jumped fully into the water for the team on the shores of Lake Erie.
Thanks to an injury to veteran goalie Brad Thiessen, Kivlenieks had to play in 43 games a season ago, by far the most on the team with Jeff Zatkoff next with 17 appearances.
The 21-year-old coming off a record-setting junior season who was supposed to be backup was instead the starter. His numbers weren't great but given the situation weren't horrible, either, with the Latvian posting a 3.21 goals-against average and .891 save percentage.
"Thiessen got injured and I had to step up," Kivlenieks said recently. "It was for sure a completely different experience than juniors. But I think it was good. Obviously I think I could have done better, should have done better, but there were some ups and downs."
Considering Kivlenieks, who stands 6-2 but plays bigger than that with good feet and movement, had been in junior hockey a year prior, the ups and downs likely weren't a surprise. He underwent quite a jump in a three-season span, as Kivlenieks spent the 2015-16 season playing with Coulee Region of the Tier II North American Hockey League, posting a 2.41 GAA and .925 save percentage.
The next year, he moved up to the Tier I United States Hockey League, the country's best junior league, and was nothing short of a force. Both the league MVP and its goaltneder of the year, Kivlenieks posted a 1.85 goals-against and .932 save percentage while going 36-7-2-4 in 49 games with Sioux City.
Those weren't good numbers, they were great numbers, and they made the undrafted free agent who seemed bound for Minnesota State University a prize on the market. He chose to sign a three-year deal with Columbus and reported to the Traverse City prospects tournament in the fall of 2017 still donning his green-and-gold Sioux City pads and a green mask adored with Peter Griffin-themed art.
It didn't take long for his blue-and-red CBJ pads to arrive, and shortly thereafter, he was the starter for an AHL team trying to keep itself afloat.
"I think those games I ended up playing helped my development this year," Kivlenieks said.
So how has he done this season? Well, there's been a lot fewer games, for one. The Monsters have Thiessen back and the organization signed Jean-Francois Berube this offseason, and Kivlenieks has battled some injuries as well. He came back to the active roster last week and started Saturday night's 4-3 overtime win vs. Chicago.
The victory was his fourth of the season in 11 games. Overall, Kivlenieks is 4-2-1 with a 3.28 GAA and .886 save percentage to go with one shutout.
"I'm learning to be more ready," he said. "I haven't played as many games, so just stay in it. I still do the same things and be ready for the chance. I think overall, we're doing really well too, better than last year as a team, and we have a really good chance to make the playoffs this year so that's what we're going for."
Kivlenieks also has a pair of veterans to study on a daily basis in Berube and Thiessen, who each have NHL experience as well as 18 total professional seasons between them.
When it comes to what he's working on on a daily basis, Kivlenieks said, "Just the little things. In practice, it's not just show up and stop the puck. It's thinking about the little things like your movement, where you should be, that kind of stuff. And obviously, mentally, you have to be sharp too. It's a lot different than juniors, I would say."
From going from the frying pan to the fire last year to adjusting to playing fewer games this season, Kivlenieks has seen it all in his first two seasons as a Blue Jacket. He said he's where he wants to be in his development and is happy to be in the organization.
The next step in his development is just continuing to prepare to be an NHL goaltender.
"You just have to be patient," he said. "I've had some games I should have done better, and some games I've played better. The injury happened, too. I just have to stay mentally ready and just shake it off and think about what you can do today and help your team and help your game and move on."