Olie Kolzig focused primarily on tutoring the organization’s prospects during his two-year tenure as associate goaltending coach and only occasionally made an appearance with the NHL team.
But last March as the Capitals embarked on a long road trip that ultimately kept their postseason hopes alive, Kolzig was filled in so that Dave Prior could visit his family in Ontario. During that stint with the Capitals – working with Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth and coaching alongside two of his former teammates in Adam Oates and Calle Johansson — Kolzig knew he was ready to take on the challenge of becoming a full-time NHL goalie coach.
“I felt like I fit in,” said Kolzig, 43. “We were doing some stuff on the ice with the goalies and at that point, I felt like I was ready for the jump, whether that was going to be this year or next year. I felt I was ready to take that next step.”
The Capitals promoted Kolzig to head goaltending coach Wednesday, bringing his apprenticeship under his long-time coach and father figure to its intended conclusion.
Back in 2011 when Kolzig was hired as associate goaltending coach, Prior said, “I’d like no one better to succeed me in the organization as our NHL [goaltending] coach.” Prior, who held a scouting position with the Capitals when he stepped down from serving as the team’s goalie coach back in 2009 for family reasons, will not remain with the organization.
Even with his success as a player and the depth of knowledge he can draw on from his playing career, Kolzig needed to grow more familiar with some intricacies of coaching.
For example, he always had been a cerebral player taking into consideration the game in its entirety not simply what the goaltenders did in it. While he hasn’t lost that perspective, he needed to learn how to focus more exclusively on the goaltender and be able to analyze precisely how they could improve their performance in any situation.
“You had to be a little more detail-oriented when it came to watching guys. You just had to pay a little more attention to detail, little subtleties,” Kolzig explained. “Why did they get scored on there? Were they screened, where was the foot position, were they set in their stance, was there a little bit of movement that didn’t allow them to get the power to come across?
“I really learned how to develop drills, to help counter some things that guys were struggling with in a game. And the gratification of seeing them get out of those slumps, have success again and that confidence and watching the team have success — you can see why people want to be coaches.”
Kolzig’s approach to the mental side of goaltending and fierce competitiveness were arguably his greatest strengths as a goaltender. His experiences, including the struggles he had learning how to harness his emotion in the early stages of his career should be an asset for the Capitals’ netminders.
General Manager George McPhee believes Kolzig’s approach to the game as a player make him a strong coach and he hopes Kolzig can impart some of the steely resolve and unrelenting nature that were such hallmarks of his game.
“You’ve got to have someone that’s strong. That was one of Olie’s greatest strengths. He may have been one of the least talented goalies No. 1 in the league for a while but he got by on sheer willpower and strength in his soul and in playing the game right,” McPhee said. “He was never technically perfect, he was athletic but not quick like some of the other goalies but he knew how to force shooters to put it in places that they didn’t want to shoot. In a lot of ways, I’m not sure the position came to him naturally he really learned how to play it. In a lot of ways, that’s what you need for a guy who’s going to be coaching – figuring out a way to do it.”
Kolzig worked with Prior for 11 years as a player and an additional two as a coach, and the two have a similar approach to the game. There will be some subtle changes to the organization’s goaltending philosophy, though, Kolzig said.
“The onus is going to be a lot more on the goaltenders to read situations, know with their positioning when to be aggressive, when to be a little more passive and just take in information,” Kolzig said. “Those are things we’re going to work [on] with the guys the next three weeks so that they feel comfortable going into the regular season. It’s not going to be a total overhaul — we’re happy with the way everything’s gone the last number of years — it’s just that we can refine things that might shave a goal every two or three games off here and there.”
More on the Capitals and the NHL
DC Sports Bog: Dave Steckel opens up about fertility struggles