Kasutin a rising goaltending star

By Eugene Belashchenko

Away from the eyes of most North American hockey observers, Ivan Kasutin has become quite a sought after goaltender in Russia. The ‘86 born netminder has been delivering the goods all season long in his rookie professional campaign for Dizelist, a High League (Russia 2) club located in Penza, Russia. At the beginning of the season, Kasutin beat another netminder, Sergei Vertunov, for the starting job and quickly established himself as one of the High League’s top goaltenders.

Kasutin is a product of the Lokomotiv hockey system from the city of Yaroslavl, which is located an approximately three-hour train ride from Moscow. A well known Super League (Russia 1) club, Lokomotiv has enjoyed great success in recent years, including two Super League championships. Unfortunately for Ivan Kasutin, raised expectations and an increased reliance on veteran players accompanied the success. This reliance was especially apparent in net, as the Super League club practically blocked off any chance of a young netminder seeing any ice time by supplementing the club’s perennial starter and long-time national team member, Yegor Podomatsky, with Canadian born Mark Lamothe (2004-05) and Steve Valiquette (2005-06). This tandem provided Lokomotiv reliable goaltending, but effectively compromised Kasutin’s development, as the young netminder was already well above the junior farm club level of hockey.

During the 2004-05 season, Kasutin requested to be loaned to a club in the High League, a second-best professional hockey league in Russia, but his request was denied, as the club required his presence in case one of the top two goalies would become injured. His request was finally granted prior to the 2005-06 season, as Lokomotiv’s management saw 1988-born Semen Varlamov as a capable third string goalie, while Kasutin’s presence on the junior farm team no longer only hurt his development, but also that of Lokomotiv’s entire goaltending development system, including Varlamov. Thus, Kasutin was loaned to Dizelist, which was located in the nearby city of Penza and has become a developmental satellite for Lokomotiv’s young players. There, Kasutin’s star really began to shine, as he was one of the main reasons for his club’s impressive season, where Dizelist unexpectedly finished second in the league’s Western Conference behind only the well funded and veteran filled Soviet Wings in Moscow.

At just 19, Kasutin proved that he could carry the load and started the majority of the games for the club. Even more importantly, he proved to be the stabilizing force between the pipes, delivering an even performance game in and game out. In addition to the High League, Kasutin made his return to Russia’s 1986-born national team, which was now preparing for the Under-20 World Junior Championships. Since his main competitor, Denis Khudobin, made the move into the Canadian junior leagues during the summer of 2005, Kasutin took over the national team’s reins between the pipes. He performed very well at the early November Under-20 tournament in Stupino, Russia. The young netminder then accompanied the severely weakened Russian Under-20 squad to the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge tournament that pitted the Russian squad against the best players of the QJMHL, OHL and WHL. Kasutin started in two games, one each against the QJMHL and OHL, and then replaced struggling Khudobin in the third against the WHL All-Stars. He delivered mostly strong performances, but the faster speed of the smaller ice surface took its toll, making it difficult to label Kasutin’s performance as stellar. Additionally, the Canadian players exploited Kasutin’s smaller stature in the net, peppering him with more shots than he would have been on the larger European ice surface in the High League. Still, Kasutin’s performance was strong enough for him to remain the favorite to back up Khudobin at the Under-20 World Junior Championships, or even possibly split the ice time with the Minnesota Wild prospect.

While Kasutin entered the Under-20 WJC training camp as Russia’s legitimate backup, Varlamov’s strong play and Kasutin’s misfortune of performing badly during his first audition in front of the squad’s general manager cost him the job. As a result, he returned to Russia along with Denis Parshin (Colorado Avalanche) and Dmitri Shitikov. Interestingly, his lack of success in cracking Team Russia hardly made a dent in Kasutin’s stellar season in the Russian High League. The young netminder went on to maintain his spot among the league’s top three goalies, neck in neck with former Yale standout Alex Westlund and former Vancouver Canuck Mike Fountain. His efforts also helped Dizelist finish the season second in the league’s Western conference. Kasutin remained strong in net for the Penza club as it reached the High League’s semifinals, where it is going to face the well funded and star studded club Traktor out of Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Traktor will likely emerge victorious against Kasutin’s Dizelist, but the young club and it’s talented goaltender have surprised many by performing as well this season as it did and going this far in the playoffs. For Kasutin specifically, his strong season may not earn him a draft selection at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, but has garnered significant interest in him amongst the Russian Super League clubs. Like 84-born Konstantin Barulin (St. Louis Blues), the previous talented young goaltender to rise out of the High League, Kasutin will likely find a backup job with a chance to start somewhere in the Super League for the 2006-07 season. Lokomotiv currently owns his rights, but depending on the transfer price another club is willing to pay for him, that status may soon change.

Whether in the NHL or elsewhere, Kasutin will enjoy a successful and long professional career. In some ways, this young goaltender represents the hopes and future of Russian goaltending, as he and his Finnish schooling may help pave the way to the resurgence of goaltending development in Russia and help import the “Western” ideas and methods regarding teaching the position to kids, instead of simply importing Western goaltenders.