On Saturday night, Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger gave a solid performance against the San Jose Sharks, stopping 23 of 24 shots to secure a 2-1 win. It was the ninth time this season he’d allowed one goal or fewer out of 41 starts, and one of 22 in which he allowed two or less.
Less than 48 hours later, Oettinger allowed 4 goals on 19 shots against the Vancouver Canucks, and it was only halfway through the game. The first two goals were soft, and he should have arguably stopped at least one of the other two; Rick Bowness had no choice but to pull the Stars’ leading goalie for the first time since mid-January.
If this was simply a bad night for Oettinger, it wouldn’t be too worrisome. Instead, this was yet the latest in a string of worrisome starts for Oettinger — across six games in April, Oettinger has posted a .890 save percentage. Add six more games to make it the past month, and it shoots up only to a .901 save percentage.
It was thanks to Oettinger’s stellar play in net (as well as Braden Holtby’s earlier this season) that Dallas was even in playoff contention heading into the trade deadline. Now, if recent performance is any indication, the Stars have climbed up in the standings since then in spite of him.
So what exactly is wrong with Jake Oettinger? We could breakdown some video to illustrate his shortcomings, but that won’t necessarily explain how he got to this point. That, to me, is the far more important question, and it just might boil down to one simple problem: usage.
After starting the season in the AHL, Oettinger was called up to Dallas in mid-November thanks to an injury to Holtby, then stayed due to an injury to Anton Khudobin. His stellar play ended up sending Khudobin to Cedar Park once healthy, where he stayed until a season-ending injury save for a two-game stint in January.
What followed was essentially a 50-50 split between Oettinger and Holtby through January. But after that, injuries caught up to Holtby, and thus the net belonged exclusively to Oettinger — after relieving Holtby against the Washington Capitals on January 28th, Oettinger started and played fully in 19 of 21(!) games. His sole two rests were Holtby’s last two games before hitting IR, on February 13th and March 4th.
But to his credit, Oettinger was fantastic during this time, sporting a .923 save percentage overall. After all, his workload wasn’t too different than what he was used to in college, or even in the AHL. In fact, when speaking of his time with Texas to start the season, Oettinger spoke about how he liked a heavy workload:
“I think just confidence. As a goalie, if you play well, it’s nice to get back in there but especially if you don’t play well,” Oettinger said. “I was playing pretty much every game down there so to just get the opportunity to know you’re playing all the time was really good for me. I think that’s just the biggest thing I needed, just more and more games. Obviously, practice is practice. That’s where I think I’m going to get the most work done, by (getting) games and getting more comfortable.”
But despite his high performance, the Stars knew they needed to bring in another goaltender to spell him when it became clear Holtby wasn’t returning. So on March 20th, Dallas traded a conditional fourth round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Scott Wedgewood.
And then... nothing.
Well, not really nothing — Wedgewood played just two games later against the Carolina Hurricanes, starting his Stars career off with a bang by setting a franchise record in a 4-3 win. But instead of giving him the net back to reward him for his performance, the Stars elected to give Oettinger the next three starts.
After that, the Stars more or less alternated two games for Oettinger for every game Wedgewood played. Which would normally be fine, except it was during this time that Oettinger’s play began to decline. Yet they continued to ride him, even inexplicably playing him in back-to-back games despite posting a poor .870 save percentage in the first.
Now, despite what the public perception might be, Wedgewood hasn’t been unbeatable in Dallas — not counting his relief effort on Monday (in which he stopped 10 of 11 shots), he has had a respectable .916 save percentage. But that is mostly thanks to the aforementioned Carolina game (.936) and a shutout against the Tampa Bay Lightning — in his other three starts, he posted a .857, a .902, and a .889. Although, to be fair, you could excuse the second game, as he still stopped 47 shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a top-three scoring team.
But the Stars didn’t need Wedgewood to be infallible, just good enough to give Oettinger the rest he desperately needed. That’s why they acquired him, and although he’s so far delivered, the Stars have continued to predominantly rely on Oettinger.
I’ve always been a big fan of Jake Oettinger, and I truly believe that despite his recent struggles, he’s still the Stars’ number one goaltender. When the playoffs begin, Oettinger has to be the guy if they want any hope of stealing a series against the Calgary Flames or Colorado Avalanche.
But to do so, they need the Oettinger from before the trade deadline, not the one since. And that means giving him the rest he needs and trusting Scott Wedgewood and the Stars’ defense to help hold down a playoff spot.
And if that doesn’t fix things? The Stars will be looking at a quick playoff exit, and a shake-up in the coaching and/or front office staff could become reality.