If you look at the top of the CHL leaderboards for goals-against average (1.22) and save percentage (.960), you’ll see an unexpected name: Kostya Arsenyev of the Minnesota Freeze. Arsenyev’s presence among the league leaders is unexpected for several reasons. He’s not just a rookie, but a virtually unknown one, chosen at the tail end of the draft. Coming into the season, many regarded him as a long shot to make the league at all. But those who doubted Arsenyev didn’t know about his secret weapon: his determination and drive to succeed.
The 21-year-old Arsenyev was born in Ukraine. For the last three seasons, he had played as a backup netminder in the KHL with Vladivostok. His numbers were decent but not spectacular. Arsenyev struggled with homesickness and frustration with his playing time. Over the summer, he made the difficult decision to leave the KHL. Given the troubled relations between Ukraine and Russia, he and his family felt increasingly uncomfortable with him playing in a Russian-based league. Arsenyev also worried that he would never have a chance to break through in the league.
Rather than play in the Ukrainian league or in Europe, however, Arsenyev made the bold decision to come to America and declare for the SHL draft.
“I want to come to America for long time,” Arsenyev said. “It is my dream.”
But deciding to play in America was just the beginning of his challenge. Arsenyev was one of the older players in the draft; when combined with his undistinguished KHL record, this made him an unappealing prospect to most team. He almost went undrafted; he was taken with the second-to-last pick by the Anchorage Igloos, who didn’t even have a vacancy in the crease.
“At that stage in the draft, there wasn’t anyone we were really interested in,” said Igloos GM Will Thorndike. “It wasn’t quite ‘close your eyes and pick a name,’ but it was close to that.”
The cap-strapped Igloos initially considered not bothering to extend Arsenyev a contract. But they gave him a ticket to training camp and a shot to stick. Determined to claim his chance, Arsenyev worked extremely hard and beat out incumbent Freeze backup Darren Lovelette.
“During the scrimmages, out of the corner of my eye, I’d see somebody making an incredible save, and I’d look over and it was him,” said Freeze coach Petr Kokrda. “I kept thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Arsenyev called his parents in Ukraine to share the good news, and they cried together on the phone. “My dream is true!” Arsenyev said. “I am very happy.”
When the season began, Arsenyev found himself in a familiar spot: playing second fiddle, in this case to top prospect Curt Freeze. Arsenyev was determined not to let his KHL experience repeat itself.
“I know I must be great when I play,” said Arsenyev, “or I do not play.”
And great is exactly what Arsenyev has been. He made his debut at the end of Week 1, stopping 29 shots in a 6-1 rout of the Utah Owls. Three nights later, facing the defending champion Idaho Spuds, Arsenyev made 28 saves in a 1-1 tie. Later that week, he managed to top himself, putting up a 36-save shutout over the Milwaukee Hogs.
On Thursday, Arsenyev struggled for the first time in his SHL career. Facing the Halifax Atlantics, Arsenyev faded in the third period, allowing three goals – including one in the last minute of the game – to turn a 2-0 lead into a loss. After the game, he sat disconsolately at his locker, feeling that he’d blown his chance. But then Kokrda came over, put his hand on Arsenyev’s shoulder, and assured him that he would continue to play – and perhaps even get more frequent starts.
“What I’ve seen out of Kostya so far has been incredible,” said Kokrda. “He’s got an amazing work ethic, and he’s always looking for ways to improve. If anything, he wants it so badly that he tries too hard to be perfect. I’m trying to get him to understand that we’re not going to deport him if he has a bad start or two.”
Granted, the season is still young, and there’s plenty of time for this Cinderella story to go awry. The odds that Arsenyev finishes the season with the league’s best GAA or save percentage are extremely slim. But then, the odds that he’d get this far were pretty slim too. And he’s determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that he succeeds.