Deep Dive: Whose Stars Net is it Anyway?

We wrap up our mini-series with a look at the Dallas Stars’ goaltenders and how their usage will be this season.

Training camp for the 2020-21 NHL season is in session, with the Dallas Stars’ season opener less than ten days away. Dallas is bringing back a roster almost identical to last year’s, but with injuries, a taxi squad, and some new faces, Rick Bowness still has some tough decisions to make regarding his lineup.

So we’ve starting a short series taking a hard look at the Stars’ training camp roster. We’re not particularly focused on predicting an opening night lineup, but rather looking at roster spot battles, player usage, that sort of thing.

Yesterday, we took a look at the team’s defense. Today, we’ll wrap up our mini-series with the goaltenders.

In both of the past two seasons, the Dallas Stars allowed the second fewest goals scored against. That is a testament to their strong defensive play, yes, but it is in large part thanks to the extraordinary play of their goaltenders. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are arguably the best goaltending duo in the NHL, a blessing for the team after so many years of subpar backup goaltending.

Unfortunately, the Stars will be missing Bishop for a large chunk of the season due to injury, but his absence shouldn’t be too big of an issue. Khudobin backstopped the Stars all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and while his #fancystats took a dive compared to the regular season — for instance, his Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) dropped from 17.75 to 0.6 — there is little reason to believe he can’t continue to string together strong performances.

If there is any point of concern, it’s whether or not Khudobin, a career backup, will be able to handle the workload of a full-time starter, especially given his age (35). But the unique situation of the 2020-21 season will help alleviate those concerns — not only are there less games, but also travel has been minimized. Plus, the condensed nature of the schedule will force the Stars to rest Khudobin in favor of their backup.

Said backup will be Jake Oettinger, who served the same role during the playoffs after getting elevated from the taxi squad. While some teams might be concerned about a rookie goaltender potentially seeing ample playing time, the Stars shouldn’t be. As I wrote prior to Free Agency, Oettinger’s development path matches closely with several other high-drafted goaltenders, each of whom is now an established starter in the NHL. Each of them reached the NHL around age 21-23 — it’s no abnormality that Oettinger (22) is here now.

The biggest question mark for Oettinger will be how he adjusts to NHL action. He got a dose of it during the playoffs when he relieved Khudobin against both the Vegas Golden Knights and the Tampa Bay Lightning, but starting a full 60 minutes is a lot different than coming in to play the third period. Oettinger has been successful wherever he goes, having taken the starter role in both his first NCAA season and his first AHL season, but he has also been plagued by slow starts throughout his career.

Thankfully, Oettinger will be playing behind arguably the best defense in the NHL, one that prides itself in making life easier for its goaltender by suppressing shots and minimizing high-danger scoring chances. It’s hard to ask for a better team to start your NHL career with, and you can be sure that the Stars will put an even greater emphasis on defense when Oettinger is in the net.

As far as usage goes, it will in large part come down to how Oettinger performs. If he does well in his first season, I would expect about a 40/60 split between he and Khudobin. That would help keep Khudobin fresh in case Bishop’s return is delayed or he is reinjured. If he struggles, then I would expect Khudobin to get the vast majority of starts — the same might happen if the Stars as a whole struggle and find themselves falling behind in the playoff race, regardless of Oettinger’s performance.

Once Bishop returns, he will likely be eased back into a starting role for the playoffs, with he and Khudobin continuing to serve as a 1A/1B pair. As for Oettinger, the Stars will have two options — keep him with the NHL team by virtue of the taxi squad, or send him down to the AHL to resume his role as the Texas Stars’ starter and get him as much playing time as possible. I would expect the latter, but as we saw with last year’s playoffs, staying around in Dallas might prove beneficial to Oettinger.

Rounding up the Stars’ goaltending depth are Landon Bow and Colton Point. Bow is expected to be the third-stringer until Bishop’s return, spending the season on the NHL taxi squad. Point meanwhile will remain in Cedar Park as he tries to reverse course on a rather poor start to his professional career. More so than anyone, how Point does this year will effect his future in the Stars’ organization, and potentially the NHL at large.

Overall, despite Bishop’s injury, the Stars don’t have too much to worry about regarding their play between the pipes. Any potential shortcomings should be alleviated by the team’s strong defensive play. Dallas may not be in the Top 2 of goals scored against yet again, but they should come rather close.