It was only a matter of time. The moment the New York Islanders hired Barry Trotz away from the Washington Capitals in the days following their Stanley Cup triumph, the clock began ticking on goaltending guru Mitch Korn. He and Trotz had been inseparable from the beginning of Trotz’s NHL career coaching the Nashville Predators in 1998-99. When Trotz joined the Caps in 2014-15, Korn followed. So it was inevitable that Korn would end up part of the Islanders’ new experiment as they try to survive life without John Tavares. Korn was announced Thursday as their new director of goaltending. He will work with goalie coach Piero Greco.
Korn, known for his rambunctious, oddball personality, is almost peerless when it comes to goalie experts, up there with Francois Allaire. Among the goaltenders who have worked under Korn dating back to his days with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1990s: Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby. Fuhr had already built his Hall of Fame career by the time he landed in Buffalo, but Hasek, Vokoun and Rinne did not have elite prospect pedigrees when they began working with Korn. It was Korn, in fact, who fought tooth and nail to stop the Sabres from exposing Hasek in the 1993 expansion draft. “I said, ‘This guy can play, but you just have to have a strong stomach to watch him,’ ” Korn once told me. He compared Hasek to a complex, 1,000-piece puzzle that hadn’t yet been arranged into a whole.
Hasek ended up winning four of his six Vezina Trophies alongside Korn, and Holtby earned his lone Vezina with Korn as his coach in 2015-16. There’s a rich history of success there, and he’s shown the ability to mold netminders of all shapes, sizes and styles. The New York Islanders, struggling to find consistent goaltending in recent years, look like the perfect team for him.
And Korn has quite a fascinating group of disciples to work with. The Isles’ probable starter this year is Sabres castoff Robin Lehner, who struggled badly this past season, especially against A- and B-grade scoring chances, but is just 26, was once a highly regarded prospect in the Ottawa Senators system, has great size at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds and has posted a save percentage of .920 or better three times in his career. There’s plenty of potential to mold there.
In Thomas Greiss, Korn gets a 1B who had carved out a tremendous career as a backup before earning a chance to start in his age-30 season relieving the injured Jaroslav Halak. Greiss wound up keeping the No. 1 gig the next year but struggled after winning that designation and slipped back into No. 2 duty behind Halak this past season.
Perhaps most intriguing for Korn are the Islanders’ prospects in net. Ilya Sorokin, 22, is widely considered one of the best goaltenders not in the NHL and regularly posts video-game-caliber numbers with the Red Army. He’s still under contract in the KHL through 2019-20 but would have a perfect mentor upon coming to North America if Korn remains with the Islanders by then. Linus Soderstrom, 21, is expected to leave the Swedish League and join AHL Bridgeport this year, meaning Korn can get his hands on the Isles’ other top goaltending prospect right away.
So even though it’s been a bleak summer for the Isles, the franchise has some savvy minds controlling their personnel now in GM Lou Lamoriello, coach Trotz and goalie guru Korn. Those hirings won’t make this team a contender overnight, but don’t be surprised if the Isles, who, had the NHL’s 26th-best 5-on-5 SP last year, immediately stop a heck of a lot more pucks with Korn in town.