When Marty Biron was a young goaltender coming up through the Buffalo Sabres’ farm system, he needed someone to understand him.
Someone willing to take the time to bring out all of the qualities that made him a first-round draft choice.
He says he found that in Mitch Korn, who after 16 years in Nashville has decided to join Barry Trotz’ staff as the Capitals’ new goaltending instructor.
“I’m almost 57 years old,” Korn told The Tennessean last week. “For me, this is what I believe is my last challenge. It was time to make a change. It was a great 16 years, but I felt that the company line is to stay with Barry.”
Although it remains unclear the exact role Korn will have with the Capitals and how current goaltending coach Olie Kolzig fits into Trotz’ plans, Biron said he believes the Caps will be better between the pipes with Korn in charge of the netminders.
“Mitch is incredibly knowledgeable about the game of hockey and has been for many years,” said Biron, who began his NHL career under the direction of Korn in Buffalo.
Biron said some goalie coaches build their programs around structure and how to be technically sound, while others work more on movement or positioning.
“With Mitch, the one thing I saw with the goalies he had in Nashville or Buffalo is they never quit,” Biron said. “He instilled the thought in his goalies’ heads that they’re battlers. You get on the ice in practice and it’s not like, ‘Do you feel like doing some extra?’ No, it’s, ‘OK, let’s go work extra. We have to get ourselves in a position physically and mentally that we can endure anything on the ice.”
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Biron, now 36, spent 16 seasons in the NHL with the Sabres, Flyers, Islanders and Rangers. He said Korn will provide the kind of stability that is needed in Washington, especially after a season in which former head coach Adam Oates was at odds with his goalies over how they should play.
Oates thought it was best for his goalies to play deeper in their nets to make themselves available for cross-ice passes. Braden Holtby struggled with the changes, suggesting it took away from his aggressiveness and led to long-range goals he normally stopped.
“I don’t know Braden all that well, but what I know is he has tremendous athleticism and physical ability,” said Biron, who worked as a television analyst for NHL Network during the playoffs. “When he plays you can see how explosive his movements are and how great a goalie he is.
“Every goalie needs structure. Every goalie needs to be told where his game starts and where it ends and play within that structure. Playing like Jonathan Quick is not going to work for 99 percent of the goalies out there unless you are Jonathan Quick.
“Mitch is really good at being able to set your boundaries. Braden Holtby, to me, he’s capable of pushing the envelope a little bit because he’s really fast in the net. His movements are really precise and quick, so you can give him the ability to move out of his net a little bit. It can’t be out of control. It can’t be 10 feet out. You have to be able to set those boundaries and I think Mitch has the ability to see what those boundaries are and test the water a little bit. That’s what he was able to do with [Dominik] Hasek. He was a guy whose boundaries were way out there, but he knew what they were.”
Biron noted that Hasek’s unorthodox style was completely different than the way Biron, Steve Shields and Andrei Tefilov played when they were in Buffalo. He sad Korn allowed each of his goalies to play to their strengths and does not envision Korn teaching Philipp Grubauer to play the same way as Holtby.
“He definitely took individual talent and tried to develop and help give you the tools you need for your body type,” Biron said. “We were totally different types of goalies in Buffalo and he was able to develop all of us.
“Here is what impresses me the most about Mitch: Nashville over the years has always had great goaltending even though they changed their goalies a lot over the years. They didn’t have the money to spend, so if a goalie had a great year or two they’d let him go and somebody else would come in.
“It started with Tomas Vokoun and then they went to Chris Mason, and then Pekka Rinne. Even Anders Lindback had a good year in Nashville and he ended up moving to TampaBay. There’s always been somebody waiting in the wings and that has a lot to do with your goalie coach.”
How long might it take for Holtby and Grubauer to adapt to Korn’s teachings after working with both Dave Prior and Kolzig in recent years?
“It depends,” he said. “When I went to the Rangers and started working with Benny Allaire I was extremely comfortable and it took right away.
You have to make a conscious effort in training camp to be 100 percent all in. You can’t have any reservations.
“This is a very big step for the Capitals. It’s a big step for Holtby, for [Grubauer]. You have to be committed to work with your goalie coach and I think if you can do that then you’re giving yourself a chance to make big strides early on. You also have to have an open line of communication. Not to be rude, but you might have to say, ‘Listen, that doesn’t work for me.’ Mitch can work with that as well.”
One other change Biron expects to see in Washington is Korn having a say in which goalie plays on any given night.
“You have to trust the goalie coach if you’re the head coach,” he said. “A lot of times the head coach won’t even talk to the goalies all that much. The goalies have their own goalie meetings in their own room with the goalie coach. If you’re the head coach you have to trust he’s doing everything he can. Mitch might say, ‘Our backup is practicing really good and we’ve got a back-to-back coming up,’ and you need his feedback and that trust has to be there.”
As for Korn’s reputation as a humorous storyteller, Biron said it’s true.
“He’s a really funny guy,” he said. “He and I would talk for hours. He’s great with young goalies. He always has a smile on his face, always has a story to tell. He’s just a really cool guy, one of the nicest guys and everyone likes him.”