In Making an NHL Goalie, the Teacher is Just as Important as the Lesson

John McDonnell/The Washington Post

The success of an NHL goaltender relies on many factors.  In the modern-day of the National Hockey League goalies must combine a unique blend of physical size, flexible athleticism, poise, vision, fearlessness, and luck.

You can bet if you’ve made it to the highest level of the game, and don a mask and pads, you possess all of those factors. Though what sets the average NHL goalie apart from the truly remarkable is the ability to excel in math, science, (and strangely enough) a firm grasp on deep contemplative Zen meditation.

braden-holtby-washington-capitals-holtbeast-caps-rocktheredVery rarely do hockey fans correlate math and the relative success of an NHL goalie.  Though understanding the numbers is a strong suit of any ice hockey player.  How many shots or saves, save percentage, or goals against average; you guessed it, all are basic math.  The calculations don’t stop there. A goalie’s stance and depth in the net becomes a ratio of open space a shooter can see or manipulate.  The angle of the body and the equipment to the puck carrier (or the play) comes down to geometry.  And success, well…the equation is complicated but if the final factor of saves divided by shots computes to less than 90%, your chances of making it in professional hockey are slim.

As a pro goalie, the figure of 10% ends up being a very important number.  First off, you have to stop 90% or more of the shots, giving up a goal on less than a tenth of the shots faced.  Second, your chance to even see a puck in pro hockey is limited, as barely 10% of all NHL draftees are goalies.  Third, and toughest, only a tenth of those drafted goalies will play more than a handful of games in the NHL.  If you drill the game (and your chance to play the game) to a fraction of a fraction you better be damned good at math and stopping a puck.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you’ve conquered your multiplication tables and made friends with the Pythagorean Theorem, the next step in upping your game is science.  I doubt there are many NHL goalies that have a degree in physics. However, each time they set foot on the ice, they are a skating, diving, sliding, and blocking experiment in force, mass, velocity, trajectory, and distance over time.

You are probably thinking that it ‘looks tough’ to be a goalie just because you have a puck being hurdled at you at high speeds; and you are thinking that solving math and science problems in fractions of seconds also sounds pretty hard; now throw in all that and having to find your Zen while all the above is happening around you.  There is so much noise, brutality, motion, and chaos on the ice; how can a man keep his heartbeat calm, his emotions in check, and his mind in focus?  To answer this question Grasshopper, one needs a guru.

Most, goalies will recount their early experience in the net as something unexpected.  They usually became a goalie because nobody else wanted to stand in front of the puck.  Flashback to their youth and they’ll tell you that someone else got hurt and the coach/Dad needed them to fill the net.  Next he realized he liked stopping pucks rather than shooting them.  He found it to be fun, and he grew proud that the puck didn’t hurt him.  Pretty soon he’s fallen in love with being on the ice for all 60 minutes, and cherishes his ice level view at all of the action.

Over time the young goalie becomes something that the Father/Coach can no longer teach.  The kid is lost in shooter drills as the average hockey practice is suited to kill goalies so that position players can excel.  Our young netminder wishes to learn and adapt not be a punching bag for one-timers and two-on-one drills.

Enter the Goalie Coach.  The guru.  The sympathetic man with the math and science mind.  The Yoda taking a Padawan learner.

Student: “Master, how do I see a slap shot that bounces off my defenseman through a screen, when the game moves so fast?”

Teacher: “The tools you have.  Stop the puck you will. Clear your mind will be.  Teach you, I shall.”

Yoda would have been a great NHL goalie with or without the Force to help him.  He was a calm little dude.  And no calm little dude has made an impact on the Washington Capitals like goaltending coach Mitch Korn.  Slight of stature, but very keen of mind Mitch Korn is the guru to our Braden Holtby.

Photo: Washington Post

Drafted in 2008, in the 4th round (93rd overall), the eight goalie taken in what was considered a weak goalie pool Braden Holtby was not targeted as a standout netminder.  In fact at the time, the Washington Capitals touted a deep talent pool in net.  Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth were all ahead of Holtby on the depth chart.  In the following years Capitals management would take chances on veterans like Tomas Vokoun and Jaroslav Halak as well.  Though it turns out the true gem from that draft class was Braden Holtby.

Holtby made 14 appearances in 2010-2011 for the Caps, and it was immediately apparent that his athleticism was worth developing.  He burst onto the scene going 10-2-2 with a .934 SV % and 1.79 goals against, which were amazing numbers.  Handing the net to Tomas Vokoun in 2011-2012 Holtby was limited (behind back-up Neuvirth) to only 7 games, though he also shined.  In 2012-2013 with Adam Oates behind the bench the Capitals turned to Holtby as a viable starting netminder.  Under positional coaches Dave Prior and Caps legend Olaf Kolzig, Holtby saw action in 36 of the 48 games (lockout shortened season), and all 7 playoff games.  But in this season he struggled.  His once lofty stats fell off pace, and at times his concentration was not present. As many young goalies take time (and patience) to mature, Holtby was going to going to need some work to find the next level.

In 2013-2014 Holtby’s numbers fell further, and his rumored falling out with Kolzig may have caused the Capitals to take a flier on trading for Jaroslav Halak in a failed attempt to make the playoffs.  Many changes had to be made.  Adam Oates, Olie Kolzig, and Dave Prior all fell out of favor with the Capitals management.  In the summer of 2014-2015 with the hire of veteran bench boss Barry Trotz, came the addition of goaltending coach Mitch Korn.

Mitch Korn had been a junior hockey standout in the 1970’s, though he decided to enter coaching in 1981.  For ten years he coached in the college ranks before joining the Buffalo Sabres staff in 1991.  The native New Yorker found an excellent student in future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, and guided him in rather unconventional fashion to four Vezina trophies. In 1998 Korn vaulted his successes in Buffalo to become goalie coach of the Nashville Predators.  Over his 16 years in Nashville he molded the likes Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne, and Chris Mason.

Joining the Capitals staff and bringing with him his odd teaching style Korn immediately took to the young Holtby.  Already knowing that Holtby’s assets of size, conditioning, and strength were solid, Korn set to work on his mind.  They worked on breathing, mental focus, and on training Holtby’s instincts.  Mitch Korn likens his training methods to a circus.  There are high wires to train balance, rings of fire to teach fearlessness, blinding obstacles to learn to adapt to not seeing the puck through traffic, and deep meditation to focus the mind, calm the breathing, and see the ice.

These drills, techniques, and training methods immediately made an impact on the young Capitals goalie.  With new coaching, renewed confidence of the organization, and a revitalized team the Capitals had regular season success in 2014-2015 and came eerily close to a conference final before another playoff disappointment.

However this did not stop Holtby and his coach from taking the next steps.  With his new long-term contract, a coach he could trust, and a stronger team in front of him; Braden Holtby has taken his game to another level in 2015-2016. He currently leads the league in wins, and is poised to break a near-impossible NHL record.

As an NHL goalie you simply learn the math and science at light speed.  You have to have it, or you don’t make it.  Braden Holtby already had the athleticism, poise, and fearlessness.  It has been under the right teacher that he has found the vision and the Zen-like focus.  His blend of these skills and traits has helped vault the Washington Capitals to a record-breaking regular season that has dazzled fans, and brought high expectations.

Who’s to say what the Capitals do next?  Though having Holtby in the net and Mitch Korn guiding him fear we will not.  Strong we are in net.

By Scott Zweibel

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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