A few months ago, goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks had been named the USHL Player and Goaltender of the Year and was preparing to go to Minnesota State University-Mankato to play Division I hockey. Today, he is a goaltender in the Blue Jackets organization.
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"My outlook now is different," Kivlenieks said. "It's a huge jump from amateur juniors straight to pro. I try not to think about it too much. So I don't overthink it, I get to work."
The Jackets signed Kivlenieks to an entry level contract in May after he caught the eye of Jackets scouts and was evaluated by goaltender coaches, Ian Clark and Manny Legace. In his 2016-17 season with Sioux City, Kivlenieks led the USHL in wins (36), save percentage (.932), minutes played (2,991) and tied for shutouts (5) among all goaltenders in the league.
"He piqued our interest right away," Clark said. "In the simplest terms, in evaluating goaltenders, we look at the quality of their feet, the quality of their hands and the quality of their eyes. When you watch the speed and quickness of Matiss's feet, that allows him to stay ahead of the pace of activity. You see a goaltender that then is able to buy their eyes the time to do the work."
Another strength the 20-year-old Latvian brings in his play is what Clark calls "patient feet."
"He powers everything from his feet which is a really important attribute for a young goaltender," Clark said. "Not only can he arrive and cover lateral distance but once he's in position, he's not already pre-committed to just dropping to a butterfly and then getting beat to his outside."
The outlook for what Kivlenieks can do with his skill has changed significantly this summer. Anton Forsberg, who played 51 games in net for the Cleveland Monsters in the AHL last season, is now a Chicago Blackhawks player as part of a trade that brought Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte to the Jackets. The organization also chose not to re-sign goaltender Oscar Dansk who just finished his second season with Rogle BK in Sweden.
Nothing is decided yet, but with the changes in the Jackets' goalie pipeline, now the target for the young Latvian is to be ready to play in the AHL come this fall.
Is Kivlenieks ready for that? "We'll see!" he says with a smile. And development camp is showing the netminder the demands that lie ahead in terms of answering that question.
With only three goaltenders attending this year's camp, Kivlenieks and his colleagues have participated in all on-ice sessions with both groups of skaters. Monday's two-a-day's put the goalies through quite a few reps, and Kivlenieks said it was "pretty hard."
"Part of development camp for these young kids is education," Clark said. "I think he's going to realize that it's not going to be talent alone that's going to get him from point A to point B. He now needs to get from point B to point C which is a much bigger challenge and talent alone is not going to get him there."
The good news is that a player with Kivlenieks innate ability is joining an organization that has established a goaltending culture founded on solid work habits and discipline led by two-time Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky.
"As I always say to goalies, elite goaltending is a lifestyle choice," Clark said. "It is not something where you just come to the rink and you're a great goalie. It is nutrition, it is rest recovery, it is how you conduct yourself every day in preparation. These are the things that Matiss is now going to have to learn."
Kivlenieks, who has already been training in Columbus for a few weeks prior to Camp, has the rest of the summer to work on what he's learning in these five days. After Development Camp is over, he'll return home to Latvia where he'll train before coming back to Columbus in August.
"(Kivelenieks) has great size and athleticism," Clark said. "By that I mean naturally for the goaltending position. Now he needs to professionalize everything he does. That will get him from point B to point C in his career."