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Top 25 Under 25: No. 24 Josef Korenar is hoping for a bounce-back year

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His first season as an AHL starter was rough, but can Korenar prove he’s still starting material?

Josef Korenar #30 of Czech Republic defends his net against the United States during the second period of play in the IIHF World Junior Championships Bronze Medal game at KeyBank Center on January 5, 2018 in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images

Though 22-year-old goaltender Josef Korenar just barely made our rankings, he’s the player whose appearance in the Top 25 San Jose Sharks Under 25 surprises me the most. He received just 29 of a possible 62 votes — the fewest of anyone in the top 25 — but his average rating was between 16th and 17th place, bumping him into the rankings by the skin of his teeth.

Korenar got his start in Czech youth leagues and representing the Czech Republic internationally, including an .881 save percentage performance at the 2016 Under-18 World Juniors Championship. Despite that and the 3.97 goals against average, he was named a Top 3 Player on the Czech Republic Team. The following year, he earned the title again in the Under-20 tournament, posting an .879 save percentage and 4.49 goals against average.

Those numbers don’t really jive with the concept of a goaltender who is among the top players on the team, but this is simply the condition of Korenar: on the aggregate, he is not great, but then there are times when he shows so much promise. The 2018 World Juniors on a whole doesn’t look good for Korenar, because the Czech Republic was trounced by Team Canada in the semi-final. Prior to that? Korenar put up a 51-save performance to get the Czech Republic into the semi-final and past the heavily-favored Team Finland.

The Sharks signed Korenar in July 2017, prior to his 2018 WJC performance. What they knew of him then was his one season in North America with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL. In 32 games, Korenar had an impressive .925 save percentage on a Stars team that missed out on playoffs by three wins.

Instead of pursuing any of the North American junior or collegiate leagues, Korenar was loaned to the Czech Republic for the following season. He spent the majority of the season in the lower Czech men’s league, and was loaned to their top-tier affiliate for nine games. Both HC Benatky nad Jizerou in Czech2 and HC Dukla Jihlava in the Czech Extraliga were struggling clubs, and the latter went into Relegation, where Korenar stunned in four games with a .953 save percentage and an even split of two wins and losses.

In 2018, he joined the San Jose Barracuda, playing back up to Antoine Bibeau for 33 AHL games. That season, the ‘Cuda finished second in the Pacific Division, with Korenar backstopping 23 of their 39 wins. Then the team was bounced in the first round of playoffs, with Korenar in net for four games and putting up a sub-.900 performance.

The Sharks traded Bibeau ahead of the 2019 season, giving Korenar the starting job for the ‘Cuda. Looking at his game log for last season is rough. To his credit, the Barracuda defense wasn’t great last season, but that also meant all of his weaknesses were on display.

He started out hot, with three wins and two shutouts in the team’s first seven games. After those initial seven games, Korenar was above .900 for only nine of his 28 games. His season-low was a .667 save percentage in an 8-1 loss against the Stockton Heat in late December. He allowed four goals on 12 shots before getting pulled halfway through the game. Among AHL goaltenders with at least 1200 minutes played, he ranked 46th in save percentage last season.

And listen, I don’t want to knock the guy, but he’s got a Minion mask and that’s a bit much for me.

You’re a big fan of Minions, when did you decide you wanted to put them on your mask? I don’t really know. It was like three years ago I went to the cinema with my girlfriend and we saw the movie and it was really funny. So after the movie, I decided I wanted to put the Minions on my mask the next season so I did it and I liked it. Everyone seems to like it so I decided to keep it.

Korenar has one year left on his three-year entry-level contract, with a cap hit of $723,333. He’s currently on loan to HC Ocelari Trinec of the Czech Extraliga, where he’s played four games with a .914 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average.

Goaltending is a big point of conversation for front offices this off-season, and a lot of NHL starters are aging out of the job. Right now, Korenar has the ceiling of an NHL back-up netminder. If he loses his AHL starting job to newcomer Alexei Melnichuk, though, that could spell trouble for his future.

What We Like

When Korenar is on, he’s on. He’s certainly still capable of performances like the 2018 WJC, but getting there consistently is an issue that hasn’t seemed to go away. Korenar draws comparisons to countryman Petr Mrazek, who has had his fair share of consistency issues, but he also put up two shutouts against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Korenar’s athleticism that put him on the Sharks’ radar hasn’t waned.

“He’s adjusted really well, and [the transition] was as smooth as it can get,” said Barracuda goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov in 2019. “His movement is really exceptional. He’s very explosive. He pushes across really well.”

Areas of Improvement

Consistency is going to be what pushes Korenar to the next level. Keeping in mind that last season was his first professional season as a starter, it’s easier to have confidence that it can happen. He’s still young, and the Sharks are going with a Martin Jones/Devan Dubnyk tandem for the big club next year, so his final ELC year will be with the ‘Cuda. Rebound control and stamina are both targets for improvement.

Highlight

Since I’ve talked about it so much, let’s just relive the glory days for a minute:

And here’s his Barracuda highlight reel for 2018-19: