SIOUX CITY | Certainly, the goaltender of the Anderson Cup-winning Sioux City Musketeers, Matiss Kivlenieks, made a difficult decision.
Conversations with his head coach was part of the process which will take the United States Hockey League’s player of the year past college and directly to the National Hockey League.
During a press conference hosted by the Musketeers Thursday afternoon at the Tyson Events Center, Kivlenieks announced he signed a three-year entry level contract with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. The USHL’s leader in wins (36), GAA (1.85) and save percentage (.932), who helped lead Coach Jay Varady's squad to the recently-completed Clark Cup Finals, had previously committed to compete at Minnesota State-Mankato.
“I still can’t believe it is happening," said Kivlenieks. "It's an amazing feeling. They were interested in me and some other teams were too.
"I had a chance to meet with (the Blue Jackets) personally and after the talk we had, I decided I wanted to be part of their organization. It was always my dream to play professional hockey since I was a kid. I wanted to say yes right away.”
Kivlenieks is the first Musketeer to sign an NHL entry-level contract since left wing Ruslan Fedotenko. During the press conference, the soft-spoken native of Riga, Latvia, expressed his thanks to his teammates and coaches.
Kivlenieks went the entire regular season without losses in back-to-back starts, made 30 or more saves 16 times and posted five shutouts. He then recorded two shutouts during the Musketeers’ run to their first Clark Cup Finals since 2005.
As excited as Kivlenieks is to become a Blue Jacket and learn from future goaltender teammate Sergei Bobrovsky (41-17-5, 2.06 GAA, .931 save percentage), he had committed to Coach Mike Hastings’ Minnesota State-Mankato program long before his first USHL game.
“I was committed to Mankato,” said Kivlenieks. “They have a really good coaching staff. I had to make a decision and it was really hard. It was hard to say I was going to play professional hockey to them. But that was my long-time dream and I have to chase my dreams.”
“We’re part of helping our players along in decisions they make,” said Musketeers Coach Jay Varady. “The one group it’s really tough for is Mankato. The relationship with Coach Hastings up there and Coach (Todd) Knott, those guys did a great job in helping us get Matiss here to Sioux City from Coulee Region last year. He had such an outstanding year that he had an opportunity most players don’t have, the opportunity to decide if (he) was going to go to college or if (he) was going to sign an NHL contract.
"For me, that’s a little tough with Mankato because they’re missing out on a great player coming through their program. But in the long run, I think if Matiss would have gone to Mankato, he might be there only a year or two and signed and gone on to his pro career.”
Kivlenieks and Varady are unsure about the timetable it will take to make his NHL debut. Kivlenieks said at the press conference the Blue Jackets want him to “get there, start working, do some skating then go from there”.
Columbus finished third in the Metropolitan Division with a 50-24-8 record. Bobrovsky paced a squad that during the regular season, allowed 195 goals, which ranked second in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets made just their third Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance this season, losing in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to Pittsburgh, a squad that includes former Musketeer Jake Guentzel.
“Sergei is one of the best goalies in the league,” said Kivlenieks. “He’s just amazingly fast and flexible. You look at him, see what he’s doing and learn from him. I just want to be the best I can be and win games. I move well from side to side and I try to be ready for the shot. I just have to get used to the speed.”
“It’s going to be a time line,” said Varady. “Maybe it’s the two goalies ahead of him are outstanding in the organization and they just want depth because there are injuries. They’re there to win hockey games at the NHL level. They’re going to use the best available goaltender they have in their organization at that time. If that means Matiss is in the American Hockey League in that time, that’s what it will be.”