Today, I’m here to tell you why the Stars’ best option as backup is not a potential off-season acquisition, but rather a goaltender already in house: rookie Jake Oettinger.
Since being selected 26th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, Oettinger is well on his way to assume his destined role as the Stars’ starting goaltender for the foreseeable future. Although he has traditionally been a slow starter beginning each season, it doesn’t take long for the American goaltender to find his rhythm and put up some very impressive numbers.
As a freshman at Boston University, Oettinger was able to grab the starter role and posted a .927 SV% across 35 games in his draft year. His numbers took a dip down to .915 SV% the following year — in large part due to Boston losing a lot of high quality players, such as blue line anchor Charlie McAvoy — but then bounced back up to .926 SV% for his junior season.
As a 21-year-old rookie in the AHL, Oettinger was expected to be backup Landon Bow but slowly overtook him on the depth chart. He posted a .917 SV% across 38 games compared to Bow’s .895 SV% across 30, and was a major reason why the Texas Stars were able to recover from a disastrous start and be in the mix for a playoff spot before the AHL season was cancelled.
His spot as the third goalie on the organizational depth chart was further cemented during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he served backup to Anton Khudobin whenever Ben Bishop was hurt. He even got to play a total of 40 minutes, in which he did not allow a single goal.
In an ideal world, Oettinger would spend at least one more year in the AHL before joining the NHL. But as we have all grown accustomed to in this pandemic world, nothing is ideal. And there might not even be an AHL season this year, given how gate-driven the league is. Without fans in the stands, it doesn’t make much sense for the AHL to operate.
In such a situation, I would expect the NHL to find a way to implement expanded rosters for teams in order to properly handle injuries, just as they did with the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. That in itself is more difficult than it sounds due to the salary cap — which isn’t an issue in the postseason — but there are multiple ways the NHL could make it happen.
Were that to happen, you could argue that Oettinger would be perfect as the third-string goaltender, getting a dose of NHL action here and there in case Bishop or the newly acquired backup got injured or needed a rest.
But I disagree — the best thing for Oettinger’s development is volume. The more playing time he gets at a higher level, the better. And what better way to get that volume than as Bishop’s backup in the NHL in a condensed schedule, where the Stars will try and frequently rest Bishop in order to avoid injury?
Choosing Oettinger as the backup also makes financial sense for the Stars. General Manager Jim Nill told the media yesterday that he has the greenlight from ownership to spend to the cap, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to spend it in net. Oettinger is by far the cheapest option since he’s still on his entry-level contract, and while the Stars would still have to acquire another goaltender — they opted not to qualify Landon Bow — it will be a lot cheaper to sign a third-stringer as opposed to a backup or 1B for Bishop.
Of course, development and finances are one thing — performance is another. After falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup championship this year, Dallas is primed to make another deep playoff run in the coming season. Are they able to do that with Oettinger serving as the backup/1B, especially if Bishop gets hurt again during the playoffs?
Critics will argue that Oettinger is too young to assume such responsibilities. Goaltenders take a longer time to develop than other prospects, typically joining the NHL when they’re around 23 or 24 years old. That’s why the “ideal timeline” would be to serve another year in the AHL, then spend two as Bishop’s backup before taking over the starter role when the latter’s contract expired.
Here’s the thing though — all this “too young” talk? Absolute nonsense. It was just four years ago that Matt Murray led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship at just 21 years of age, and then another one the next year. Around the same time, Andrei Vasilevskiy took over the starter role from Ben Bishop at age 22, and he’s been a Vezina Trophy finalist each of the three seasons after that.
Even more recently, Carter Hart has emerged as one of the better goaltenders in the league. He’s posted a .915 SV% in 74 career NHL games with a .625 Quality Start % this most recent season, per Hockey Reference (above .600 is very good). That’s not to mention his playoff performance in which he posted a .926 SV% in 14 games for the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. And guess what? He’s just four months older than Oettinger.
That’s not to say that young goaltenders finding great success is the norm in the NHL, just that it’s not as rare as you might think. In addition, it’s worth noting that, like Oettinger, Vasilveskiy and Hart were both the top goaltender selections in their respective draft classes. Furthermore, Mackenzie Blackwood and Ilya Samsonov — the top two netminders from the 2015 draft — have also had strong starts to their NHL careers.
In other words, for a goaltender of Oettinger’s draft pedigree, it might not be too early for him to hit the NHL. Rather, it might be exactly the right time.
You also have to consider that the Stars are a very sound defensive team. Anton Khudobin was a decent goaltender before coming Dallas, but his numbers have skyrocketed these past two seasons. His only comparable season was in 2013-14 with the Carolina Hurricanes. While he is well-deserving of whatever new contract a team gives him, the Stars’ defense deserves a lot of credit for that payday.
So if you’re worried about whether or not Oettinger is “ready” for the NHL, wouldn’t this current roster and defensive structure be the perfect way to ease him in? Dallas will, on occasion, allow a flurry of shots against, but they are traditionally very good at limiting high-scoring opportunities. Oettinger would get tested frequently and need to adjust to NHL-caliber offense, but he would certainly not be left out to dry.
At the end of the day, the Stars’ goaltending situation rests squarely on Anton Khudobin’s shoulders. The team has been very clear in their desire for him to return, and should they come to an agreement, he and Ben Bishop would be the undisputed goaltending tandem.
But if not? I think Oettinger would be the best choice available to be backup to Ben Bishop, even with the score of netminders available in free agency this year. Not only that, but if the Stars play their cards right, Oettinger could actually end up being an upgrade over Khudobin by the end of the season.
And call me crazy, but given Ben Bishop’s injury history, would it be that far-fetched to think Oettinger was capable of taking over the starter role sooner than expected? After all, he did it his freshman year in the NCAA and his rookie season in the AHL — it seems to be somewhat of a specialty of his.
As things currently stand, the future of the Stars’ crease belongs to Jake Oettinger. Why not see if he has what it takes to earn it already?