A Mid-Season Evaluation of Jake Oettinger

Oettinger had the best game of his career against the Colorado Avalanche, but how has he faired as a whole this season?

On Tuesday night in Denver, the Dallas Stars snapped the Colorado Avalanche’s 19-game point streak with a 4-1 win. It was also the Avalanche’s first regulation loss at home since October 26th(!). This all coming right after a 4-0 drubbing by the Avalanche in Dallas, where the Stars have traditionally excelled, just two days prior.

Even more interestingly, based on shots on net, high-danger scoring chances, and possession stats, the Stars should have been beaten even worse on Tuesday. So what was the difference? Simply put, the goaltending: Jake Oettinger stopped 46 of 47 shots in what was easily the best game of his career.

Praise for the Stars’ sophomore goaltender rightfully flooded Twitter throughout the game and the hours after. But while reading through it all, I also noticed a few suggestions here and there that Oettinger had been struggling recently until this point, which caught me by surprise. So I took a dive into his statistics this season, and what originally started as a short Twitter thread turned into... well, this.

First thing’s first: while it’s a smaller sample size, Oettinger is so far outperforming his rookie season in nearly every statistical category. Per Hockey Reference:

The only areas Oettinger has taken a step back in are GAA (which, imo, is more or less worthless) and RBS%, i.e. the percentage of games he’s had with less than a .850 SV%. One of those three games came in a 7-4 win against the Minnesota Wild; the other two were back to back starts in January against the Florida Panthers (7-1 loss) and the Montreal Canadiens (5-3), both of which were the only time Oettinger has save below 80% this season.

His QS% is much higher, however, which suggested to me that his bad starts might be tanking his overall numbers. I hate the idea of throwing out statistics, especially with a small sample size, but out of curiosity, I ran Oettinger’s numbers with his three worst and three best games this season removed. His SV% shot up to to .919 (.918 if you keep the 3rd best/worst), which seem to support the argument.

Now let’s compare him to his teammates in Dallas, where we see that he has handedly outplayed Braden Holtby and Anton Khudboin:

When specifically comparing him to Holtby, Oettinger comes out ahead in every category except for RBS%, where he’s slightly behind. I decided to give Holtby the same “drop the extremes” treatment, and was surprised to find that his SV% actually stayed the same (dropped to .911 if keeping the 3rd best/worst). That — along with Holtby’s higher number of games under .900 — shows to me that, unlike Oettinger, Holtby’s best/worst games don’t skew his numbers one way or the other.

Comparing him to his peers across the NHL, Oettinger comes in T-18th in SV%, T-19th in QS%, and T-19th in GA%- (goals allowed % compared to league), putting him solidly in the middle of the pack. Granted, that’s to be expected given the team is on the bubble — the majority of goalies ahead of him are the starters for a playoff team.

That, of course, gives us a little “chicken vs. the egg” dilemma (are the teams good because the goalies are good or vice versa?), but I won’t get into that. Rather, my takeaway is that Oettinger is having a solid, yet not phenomenal, season thus far compared to the NHL at large. I’ll also take solace in the fact that he is younger than all of those goalies ranking above him — Boston Bruins netminder Jeremy Swayman is the only other 23 year old, with slightly more than half falling in the 26-28 age range.

So yes, context matters. Which brings me back to the Stars specifically — is there a reason Oettinger has been outplaying Holtby? The home/road splits are the biggest difference, with Oettinger starting in just four away games. That helps explain the large discrepancy in the win column, as the Stars have been fantastic at home and far less so on the road save recently.

Oettinger is having a solid, yet not phenomenal, season thus far compared to the NHL at large. I’ll also take solace in the fact that he is younger than all of those goalies ranking above him.

It’s worth noting, however, that Oettinger’s gone 2-2 on the road, with three of those games being among his seven best for the season. The one that isn’t? His aforementioned stinker against the Florida Panthers, which was his second worst overall. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Khudobin was nearly just as bad in relief, meaning it was less “Oettinger was bad” and more “the Stars as a whole were bad.”

Which, in turn, brings us back to another chicken and egg scenario: are Oettinger’s numbers better because he plays primarily at home, or are the Stars better at home (at least in part) because Oettinger is playing? There’s not nearly enough data to draw a conclusion, but it’s worth considering.

One final note: the eye test. While he has been solid statically, people might come to the conclusion that he’s been struggling due to how he’s looked on the ice. Specifically, Oettinger has a tendency to over-rely on his athleticism to make up for bad positioning. It’s why you often see Oettinger stretching from one side of the net to the other to try and stop a shot, or a goal come from a weird angle or low scoring zone.

I don’t have any specific examples to provide, but rather that’s my takeaway from watching him the past two years. The good news is that it’s a problem that should go away with experience and coaching. The more time Oettinger spends in the NHL, the more he’ll adapt to the much higher pace and frequency of high-danger scoring attempts. That should help refine his fundamentals, which in turn will allow his raw athleticism to truly flourish.

All of which is to echo what I said when comparing Oettinger to his NHL peers: overall, the Stars’ netminder is having a solid, yet not spectacular season. But he’s also only 23 years old with just 50 NHL games under his belt, seven of which came in relief. Oettinger may not be good enough yet to compete for hardware, but he can steal games for Dallas, as we saw Tuesday night. And that’s a big reason why the Stars are squarely in the playoff hunt.