For 16 years, Mitch Korn was the goaltending coach for the Nashville Predators, earning the nickname “The Goalie Whisperer” for his success with several netminders. He followed coach Barry Trotz to Washington, but not before coaching current Predators goalie Pekka Rinne for eight seasons.
He oversaw two seasons in which Rinne was a Vezina Trophy finalist. He watched from afar as Rinne was a finalist for a third time in 2014-15. Trotz used to call him “The Great Eraser” because he eliminated so many of the Predators’ mistakes.
He’s had great seasons before, but this season is different. This season, according to Korn, is the season the 35-year-old goaltender has finally put it all together in a way he hasn’t before.
“I’ve never seen him, honestly, play better, play tighter,” Korn told ESPN. “He’s never looked better to me.”
Rinne finished the regular season with a 41-13-4 record and a .927 save percentage with a 2.31 goals-against average. His .939 even-strength save percentage was best in the NHL. So was his 26.41 goals saved above replacement. So was his .672 percentage of quality starts for goalies with at least 50 starts. If Rinne wasn’t the favorite to win his first Vezina already, a late season downtick from Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy ensured it.
It’s a season that has seen him lead the Predators to the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record. It’s a season that has seen him reach 310 career NHL wins, just nine behind Miikka Kiprusoff for the most by a Finnish-born goalie.
“Growing up, I never dreamed about reaching any of these milestones that I’ve already reached. I’m living the dream. It’s unbelievable,” Rinne said.
How was Rinne so dominant this season?
It starts with what’s in front of him and ends with what’s under him.
Rinne’s run in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs was the thing that Conn Smythe Trophies are made of, and the award likely would have been his, had the Predators found a way to prevail over the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Rinne’s inexplicable inability to win in Pittsburgh, it should be said, didn’t help.)
“He always got a lot of attention. Maybe not [Carey] Price-like because he was in Nashville. So having that kind of success, going where they went, has to have some kind of impact on his confidence,” Korn said.
He won five straight games to start the playoffs last spring, with four straight to sweep the Chicago Blackhawks, including two shutouts. He gave up two or fewer goals in 14 of his 22 starts. It was a remarkable run that put wind in his sails entering this season.
“Obviously, last season helped,” Rinne said. “The whole experience in the finals, going that deep, it just calms you down. You have a sense of trust. A sense of confidence after that.”
Of course, it also helps the confidence when a team defends and scores as well as Nashville does. The Predators were eighth in goals per game (3.18) and second in goals-against per game (2.49) this season.
“I have to credit my teammates. Even the nights I’m giving up two or three goals, we’re finding a way to score four of five goals,” Rinne said.
One of the constant debates in evaluating NHL goaltenders is how much credit they deserve for their success vs. how much of their success is the product of the talent in front of them. Did Martin Brodeur make the Devils’ system, or did the Devils’ system make Martin Brodeur? That sort of thing.
Rinne is blessed with one of the most talented defense corps in the NHL: Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, both viable Norris Trophy candidates; Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, who could be top-pairing defensemen on most teams in this league. These defensemen play more than two-thirds of each game.
“The defense gives you confidence. The ability to score goals, which they’ve proven to do, gives you confidence. So this allows you to change some things in your game without feeling there’s a lot of risk,” Korn said.
What changed for Rinne?
“There are subtle things that the average person won’t know. Instead of extending a foot and a half with his catching glove to catch a puck, he’s now catching the puck towards the middle of his body because he moved to it. So a 6-foot-5-inch guy looks like an 8-foot-5-inch guy.”
Former Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn
Chris Mason was a goalie for the Predators from 1998 to 2008, learning under Korn. He’s now a television analyst for the team, and he has witnessed a change in Rinne this season. In particular, what Rinne is doing with his skates.
“The biggest adjustment Pekka’s made this season is his stance. His feet are a little closer together. His shoulders are more upright, to take away more of that net,” Mason said.
Rinne stands 6-foot-5. Korn thinks he has played bigger than that this season. It’s not just his footwork but also how he’s playing the puck.
“There are subtle things that the average person won’t know. Instead of extending a foot and a half with his catching glove to catch a puck, he’s now catching the puck towards the middle of his body because he moved to it. So a 6-foot-5-inch guy looks like an 8-foot-5-inch guy,” Korn said.
Understand this about Rinne and catching the puck: His glove hand has been his calling card during his career. Nothing is more associated with him than how good he has been to his glove side. It’s Ovechkin’s shot from the circle. It’s Crosby’s backhand. It’s Bergeron’s winning a faceoff. It’s the thing that Pekka Rinne does better than any player in the league.
Despite wanting to round out Rinne’s game during his time with the goalie, Korn would defer to the power of the glove.
“Back then there was a saying: You don’t coach out of a guy what he does better than anyone else in the world, even if it wasn’t traditional. So he could catch pucks. He could use the glove, gobble up rebounds,” Korn said.
Did it get to the point of over-reliance?
“I think we all rely on the things we do well, right?” he said. “I mean, I don’t cook well, but I can clean a mean dish.”
What Rinne has done this year is manage his economy of motion better. He’s in the blue crease. He’s not chasing pucks. He’s traveling less. His volume of moves is lower. “He used to end up in the white paint on the sides, go outside posts. He’s going in straighter lines now, not moving around as much. He plays with less depth, stays in the blue more. And has more of an economy of motion,” Korn said.
Mason has seen the changes, too.
“He was way more aggressive on shots down the wing. When you come out an extra six inches outside the crease, you can make that save, but to get that rebound, it takes a good six inches to get back over,” he said. “This year, Pekka’s on top of the crease. His route is more of a straight line back to the post.”
Watching Rinne this season, the difference is stark: Instead of setting up in front of his post to play angles, he’s putting his skate against it, his pad covering the net, leaning against the post. This has allowed him to get across the goal line more easily to make saves.
“Above all else, use his body as much as he uses it. Pekka would make unbelievable, great glove saves because he used his body a lot to reach for pucks,” Korn said. “I give [Predators goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok] a lot of credit. They put a plan in place, both a training plan and an education plan, and he has evolved a lot in the last year.”
(A request to the Predators to speak to Vanderklok wasn’t returned.)
On the ice, Rinne’s adjustments have been key. But he wouldn’t be the goalie he is this season if not for his getting things in order off the ice.
Ekholm is 27, nearly a decade younger than Rinne. He marvels at his goalie’s preparation.
“He’s a pro. He takes care of his body, as least that’s what I’ve seen in the time I’ve been here. It’s been a pleasure to watch,” he said.
Rinne has had only one major injury setback in the NHL. In 2011-12, he left for Belarus to play with Dinamo Minsk during the lockout. The following season was a dud, with a .910 save percentage. “I’ve always contended that he didn’t come back from Belarus the same goalie. He didn’t come back the same guy. The reason, maybe, was that the hip became an issue,” Korn said.
In 2013, Rinne underwent hip surgery. The timing was unfortunate for the Predators, as he had just signed a seven-year, $49 million contract — part of the team’s effort to keep the trinity of Rinne and defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber together. It got worse: an E. coli infection afterward limited Rinne to 24 games in 2013-14.
“We came out of the lockout, there was a lot going on. I don’t think he had the best opportunity to train well,” Korn said.
Since that season, Rinne has been a model of durability, starting more than 60 games in three straight seasons before starting 59 in 2017-18. (His understudy, Juuse Saros, made six starts in the last two weeks of the season to give Rinne extra rest before the playoffs.) Rinne trains well and prepares well, and this sturdiness is a product of that.
Korn saw Rinne recently. He has known him since he was a 23-year-old NHL newbie, discovered in the eighth round of the 2004 draft by GM David Poile’s scouting staff. The man he saw standing before him in 2018, on the precipice of unparalleled personal and team accomplishment, impressed him.
“He’s never looked better to me, and I don’t know if he’s ever been happier. I don’t think you can get your hockey in order unless you have all the other aspects in your life in order,” Korn said, declining to elaborate. “He deserves great karma because he’s a great human being.”
And a pretty good goaltender, too.