NASHVILLE — Their relationship was still in its early stages, but as Mitch Korn sat next to Braden Holtby on the plane, he just had to know one thing.
“Do you consider yourself a blue-collar goalie?” Korn asked.
It was the fall of 2014, and the Washington Capitals were flying home after a loss in which Holtby had struggled. But he was sure of his answer: Yes. Holtby told Korn he had been raised on a cattle and grain farm in Saskatchewan. He was even more proud of his NHL roots as a fourth-round draft pick in 2008.
“Well, I just met you,” Korn told him. “I don’t know you real well. I’m learning. But for a blue-collar guy, I don’t think you’re blue collar enough.”
This assessment came from a goaltending coach who grew up in New York City and admits he’s “not quite a farmer.” But what Korn considered blue collar — a goaltender who wants to get hit with pucks and doesn’t take shots off — he had yet to see from his new pupil. He was ready to explain himself, but he didn’t need to.
“He looked at me, and said, ‘You know, I think you’re right,’ ” Korn recalled. “Never again had to say a word.”
That was a turning point for the duo. They may seem like an odd couple on the surface, but their joint efforts have made Holtby — with 30 wins, a 2.07 goals against average and a .929 save percentage — the Vezina Trophy favorite and a starter in Sunday’s All-Star Game. Coming off a breakthrough year, Holtby has gotten even better. He is on pace to break legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur’s single-season wins record.
Ask Capitals Coach Barry Trotz the top reason his team has the best record at the all-star break and he’d credit Holtby. Korn deserves a share of that.
“It’s almost like a father-son relationship in some ways,” Trotz said. “Mitch gives him his space, and then they work on his game together. There’s just a real good comfort level.”
Their first flight together was to Minnesota. The trip had two purposes: Korn wanted Holtby to train his vision with an optometrist, but more importantly, he wanted to bond with his pupil. As befitting of their personalities, Korn told animated stories, Holtby mostly listened.
They knew of each other before they met. Holtby read Goalies’ World magazine when he was younger; the innovative Korn was always in it. They also had mutual friends, most significantly John Stevenson, a coach with whom Holtby worked in junior hockey.
That Holtby and Korn share a Sept. 16 birthday was the first good omen. The second was that Korn had inadvertently influenced Holtby years ago. Stevenson and Korn had worked together in Edmonton during the 2004-05 lockout, and that led Stevenson to introduce Holtby to the quirky props — miniature pucks, white pucks and screen boards — that Korn still uses.
Korn also had relationships with Dave Prior, Olie Kolzig and Arturs Irbe, the goalie coaches who came before him in Washington. So while Korn often gets the praise for helping Holtby become one of the league’s elite goaltenders, Korn insists that he just added icing to an already baked cake.
“It’s like you do the ‘Back to the Future’ thing, where you knew what was going to happen in 2015, so you go back to the past to arrange all of the building blocks to be in the right place so you can have success in 2015,” Korn said. “When you look at it that way, it’s what happened.”
But when Holtby was asked recently on NHL Network what was the most important thing Trotz brought from the Nashville Predators to Washington, Holtby laughed and said it was Korn.
When Korn joined Trotz in Washington before last season, he was told Holtby would be his No. 1 goalie. Holtby had struggled the previous season in part because former coach Adam Oates wanted all the goalies to play deeper in the crease, despite never playing the position himself. Korn wanted to form his own impression of Holtby, so he started by watching video. What he saw was a goaltender who leaned too much on his athleticism, a style of play that didn’t lend itself to consistency.
Korn said Holtby was reaching to make saves, which “forces you to be more precise and opens holes.” There were saves Holtby made where all four limbs were in different directions, and there were goals he gave up like that, too. What Korn wanted Holtby to learn was body control, for his limbs to work together as a unit. That started to make even the tough saves look easy.
“Some of the things he wanted me to improve on I already knew I needed to get better at them, I just didn’t know how,” Holtby said. “Mitch came up with the ideas. We talk through things; it’s not one thing works and one thing doesn’t. Once there’s proof that there are no holes in certain situations and you’re starting to feel yourself be tighter or be more efficient in ways that you hadn’t in the past, then you know it’s working.”
Holtby said Korn sees the game better than anyone he’s ever met. When Korn sends video to Holtby after his starts, the comments by Korn reflect what Holtby is thinking, and sometimes Korn will point out what Holtby didn’t see. In their second season together, there’s less for Korn to critique.
“You start talking to Holts a little more and understanding,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “He’s like, ‘God, this guy really knows what he’s talking about. He understands the game from a goalie standpoint.’ ”
In early November of last season, Holtby made 38 saves in a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. On the surface, it was a good performance, but on the flight back to Washington, Korn pulled out his iPad to discuss the two goals Holtby allowed.
Both perfectly epitomized what Holtby needed to improve. Holtby said he realized then that Korn “was very intelligent in what he was doing,” appreciating the focus being how Holtby could have prevented the two goals allowed rather than Korn just praising him for making 38 saves.
Korn considers that exchange a “red-letter day,” just one of the breakthroughs he had with Holtby early in their relationship. After a game against the New York Islanders that Korn wasn’t at, he sent Holtby video with his comments, at one point bluntly remarking that for Holtby being so athletic, Korn was surprised he didn’t have better body control.
Then there was the time Korn told Holtby he didn’t think he was “blue collar enough,” and Holtby didn’t disagree. The comment hit the perfect nerve with Holtby.
“I’ve never been that goalie that has come up with the most amount of natural skill,” Holtby said. “I was a late pick, I was never really a Team Canada goalie or anything like that. I knew that if I worked hard enough and tried to get the most out of myself, I’d be happy at the end of the day if I was better than I was the day before.”
Korn noticed that Holtby avoided getting hit with the puck in practice by making saves in a way he wouldn’t during a game. Korn wanted Holtby to focus on stopping the puck instead of handling it.
What happened next epitomized what worked in their relationship: Korn could be honest with Holtby, and Holtby would react accordingly. When the Capitals won just 10 of their first 24 games and there was frustration with the goaltending, Korn stayed patient with Holtby.
“The changes he was trying to adjust to and make are like trying to change the engine in your car during the Indianapolis 500,” Korn said. “You can change your tires, but you can’t change the engine, and yet, that’s what we were asking him to do.
“He was trying to change things as he was playing in season. At the same time, it was really good for me, because it provided me with the footage and the examples we needed to correct.”
By the end of the season, Holtby had backstopped 73 games and 41 wins, rocketing into the Vezina Trophy finalist discussion but ultimately falling short. Not even the tires need changing after most nights this season.
The way most explain the successful relationship between Holtby and Korn is “opposites attract.” But ask Holtby to describe Korn, and it sounds like he’s describing himself.
“He’s intense in the fact that he wants to accomplish something,” Holtby said. “He wants to get to work, but I think he realizes that we’re on the same page, that I just want to get better.”