When Barry Trotz was hired by Lou Lamoriello to be the 17th different head coach of the New York Islanders, two questions sprung straight to everyone’s minds: a) this meant that John Tavares had to stay, right?; and b) was he bringing along his two most loyal assistants, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn?
The answer to a), we know, was no. But b) turned out to be quite the uplifting yes. Lambert, an assistant under Trotz since 2011, followed his boss to Long Island only two weeks behind him. Korn, the “goalie whisperer” and the more coveted of the two assistants, seemingly took a bit more convincing to join the organization, but did so on July 26, taking on the role of Director of Goaltending.
His hiring, highly anticipated by Isles fans and highly regarded in every corner of NHL critical review, gave immediate legitimacy to a position with which the Islanders struggled so mightily for decades. His massive and impressive body of work begot his reputation, which speaks for itself, and which represents a drastic turnaround for the organization’s commitment to goaltending.
Korn has been in the NHL as a coach since 1991, when he was hired by the Buffalo Sabres. He spent seven years in western New York, his main project a guy named Dominik Hasek. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He remained in Buffalo until 1998, when the Nashville Predators were born into existence. Their inaugural coach: Trotz. Korn was hired as part of the inaugural coaching staff, as well, becoming the organization’s first goaltending coach. It was a post he held until 2014, when both he and Trotz were relieved of their duties in Tennessee. During his sixteen years there, he worked with and groomed the likes of Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne, Carter Hutton, Juuse Saros, Anders Lindback, and Scott Darling, among others. Trotz, now an available veteran NHL head coach, was considered a premier candidate with his 16 years’ experience, and was quickly hired by the Washington Capitals. Korn, with some convincing, agreed to join him as goaltending coach. There, he worked with Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, most notably. He took a step back from the game beginning in 2017, when he surrendered the title of Goaltending Coach for Director of Goaltending, the title he now occupies with the Islanders.
Throughout his career, his goalies have accumulated numerous accolades: a total of eight Vezina Trophy nominations, five Vezina wins, three Hart Trophy nominations, and two Hart Trophy wins. You might just call it chance, but for his goalies to perform as well as they have over a period of 27 years is certainly nothing to sneeze at. His hiring assuredly has some cache to it, but the extent to which this may help Robin Lehner, a large 26 year-old goalie the Islanders signed to a one-year deal this summer, remains to be seen.
To examine the impact Korn could have on Lehner, described by one former Sabres colleague as a “talented lazy psychopath,” one need look no further than the performance of his past goalies for the purposes of this question, especially once they had spent significant time working with Korn. (Let’s keep it easy: all stats are gathered from Hockey Reference, and all save percentages are all-situations.)
As previously mentioned, one of the first NHL goalies to work with Korn was Hasek. “The Dominator” wasn’t so dominating when his NHL career began. Drafted in the tenth round by the Blackhawks in 1983, he didn’t come over to North America until 1990, serving primarily as the backup to Ed Belfour. Hasek was traded to Buffalo during the summer of ‘92, and spent his first season with the Sabres as backup to Grant Fuhr. His NHL career save percentage to that point was .896.
In ‘93-’94, Fuhr missed time while injured, and Hasek stepped in marvelously, claiming the starter role and playing 58 games with an absurd .930 save percentage - this would be an extremely high number even in today’s game, where NHL average save percentage is .912, according to Hockey Reference. The same site says that back in ‘93-’94, league average was .895. A full .035 higher than an average goaltender - oh, and he was already 29 years old. This level of play carried through much of the rest of his career with Buffalo; the time in which Korn and Hasek’s services to Sabres overlapped resulted in two Hart Trophy nominations and two Hart wins, as well as four Vezinas. And though Hasek’s goalie coach during the Olympics was not Korn, in February 1998, he led the Czech Republic to gold in Nagano.
It’s tough to determine what happened, exactly, that elevated Hasek from mediocre NHL backup to world-beating monster at the most-likely-past-his-prime age of 29 - perhaps he needed time to get used to North American rinks and style of play, since he was named MVP thrice and top goaltender four consecutive seasons in the Czechoslovak Extraliga before coming over - but it can’t hurt Korn’s rep to have coached the best goaltender of all-time.
Vokoun was claimed by the Predators from the Canadiens, his draft team, during the Expansion Draft. He and Korn were original members of the organization, and Vokoun spent his first four seasons in Nashville splitting time with friend-of-the-Isles Mike Dunham before the latter was traded to the Rangers.
Vokoun started for Nashville through his age-30 season before being shipped to the Panthers. In his four seasons as the Predators’ starter, he posted mostly strong save percentages of .918, .909, .919, and .920. Interestingly enough, however, his save percentage increased during his time in Florida. His first season there hovered right around where he had been, at .919. But his next three seasons: .926, .925, .922.
Vokoun noticed an uptick in his play when he got away from Korn, even in his age 31-34 seasons. Again, difficult to discern what occurred or what may have changed in his game, but an interesting dichotomy with Hasek.
Rinne was drafted by the Predators and rose through the organization to become the starter during the 2008-09 season, and worked with Korn until he and Trotz’s contracts were not renewed in 2014.
Rinne’s numbers have bounced all over the place through his career: one year he looks like a beast, the next not even starting quality. His best season, statistically, came under Korn in 2010-11, where he posted a .930 save percentage and willed the Predators to the playoffs. His next best season was this past one, at age 35, where he posted a .927 and won the Vezina Trophy as the Preds won the President’s Trophy. And for what it’s worth, he struggled mightily his final two seasons working with Korn, recording seasons of .910 and .902 in ‘12-’13 and ‘13-’14, respectively.
Holtby was drafted by Washington in 2008 but didn’t secure regular NHL duty until 2012-13, when he started 35 games and played in 36, posting a .920.
In his first season as a full-time starter in 2013-14, he stopped .915 of the shots he faced over 48 games. The next season, his first working with Korn, that number rose to .923, and he played in 73 of the Capitals’ 82 games that season. The next two seasons saw him start 66 and 63 games and record .922 and .925, respectively. This past season, his save percentage dipped all the way down to .908, but his workload fell to 54 games, as well.
There’s an argument to be made that his game took a step back when Korn did, as he was not the goaltending coach this past season even though he was in the organization; there’s also a probably more convincing argument that his struggles were due to exhaustion from the heavy workload he carried over the previous three seasons.
The biggest conclusion we can draw from this little thought exercise is that goalies are difficult to explain. Percentages jump all over the place, and admittedly, this post resembles an argument in a bar room debate than it does a detailed statistical analysis. And I subjectively selected four of the best goalies with whom he’s worked, not all of whom are the most ringing of endorsements of Korn’s coaching abilities. Individual talent plays a role, no question, and to say Lehner is anywhere close to the natural talent level of the four goalies studied here would be quite generous.
But by the same token, bear in mind the sheer number of elite goalies with whom Korn has worked; part of his job through the years was to identify goaltending talent, and these are just four examples of who he may have had a hand in selecting or elevating.
And who’s to say that Korn wasn’t at least partially responsible for improving the play of his goalies? I claim full ignorance of the knowledge of what makes a goalie great as far as positioning and movement and all that jazz, but perhaps he’s adept at pinpointing weaknesses in a goalie’s game and creating simple solutions to turn them into strengths. I mean, I’m speculating, of course, but isn’t that all we do here anyway?
In Robin Lehner comes, potentially, his biggest challenge yet. He undeniably has size and skill, though has never been able to put it all together, and he’s undoubtedly the headcasiest of headcase goalies. If Korn’s reputation as the “goalie whisperer” holds true, he may just get inside the head of Lehner to control and use his powers for good, even if he won’t be coaching him day-to-day.
In other words, yes, I believe Mitch Korn can work his magic on Robin Lehner. But if not, Korn’s ability to identify talent in the position will be a huge asset going forward.