When Ben Bishop was forced to miss most of the 2021-22 season rehabbing a knee injury, the Dallas Stars were forced to skip a step in the development of young Jake Oettinger. At 22 years old, he had only played one full season in the American Hockey League (AHL). Now, he needed to step up and support Anton Khudobin as he did in the 2020 Playoffs. Not only did he do that, but he slowly inched ahead of Khudobin for the starting spot.
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The first career start for Oettinger came early in the season against the Detroit Red Wings. While the Stars put up seven goals in support, he had to make some saves early on and hold off a late comeback. It was a great first test for the young goaltender as he dealt with adversity and eventually came out with a 7-3 victory. As the season went on, it became a question mark as to which goalie would start on a nightly basis. Khudobin played well early in the season but struggled beyond that dealing with side effects from COVID-19 as well as being suspended for showing up late to a practice. The situation morphed into a fairly even split where both goaltenders could play on any given night. At the end of the season, Oettinger started 24 games while Khudobin started 32.
“I’m learning from two of the best guys in the league in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin,” Oettinger said. “Both of those guys are just so good at resetting, mentally. Just being able to watch Dobby so closely is just an invaluable experience for me. He never gets rattled. He’s just out there playing and having fun. Goals are going to go in; that’s part of the game and part of the position. The really good goalies and the ones that stick around for a long time are the ones that can let one in and you won’t be able to tell after that.”
Another good lesson for Oettinger last season was how tough it is to win past regulation. The Stars as a team had a league-high 14 losses past regulation and he was in net for half of them. As the season moved along, he looked more comfortable and confident in these situations, especially the shootout, as he faced his childhood favorite players 1-on-1. His numbers were solid all year, finishing with a 2.36 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. What really stood out, however, was his calm demeanor.
As discussed in an article earlier this year, the kid showed a calming presence that is rare in NHL goaltenders and even more so in a rookie. His confidence allowed his team to play more freely in front of him and trust that he could cover for their mistakes when they broke down. He did just that throughout the season and the respect from his teammates and coaches only grew with each game he played.
“Jake is a tremendous competitor, we’ve talked about that from Day 1,” said Stars’ head coach Rick Bowness. “He’s a tremendous worker. I worked with [Roberto] Luongo, and [Andrei Vasilevskiy] in Tampa, and they’re great goalies. The two things they had other than their great abilities is they worked their butts off and were great competitors. When your teammates see your goalie working that hard and competing that hard, they want to play in front of him. Jake is a young guy, and we all know he could’ve spent this year in Austin, but that didn’t happen. But what he’s done is he’s proven to himself, and just as important to his teammates, that this is the league he belongs in right now.”
Equally as impressive was the fact that he was never pulled within a game. He started 24 games for the Stars last season and finished each and every one of them. Meanwhile, Khudobin was pulled five times during the season. When Oettinger was swapped into a game, he was consistently able to play well and shift the game for the better. When asked about his preparation, he said that he prepares the same way for every game whether he is starting or not. That mindset allows him to always be ready and perform no matter what. It seems that the list goes on and on with how impressive he was in his rookie season but his maturity and personality stand out most.
Each of his 24 starts came with a new perspective and further development for the young goalie, and he will only continue to improve from here.
“He’s going to keep getting better,” Bowness said. “They need experience, they need to learn the ups and downs and the highs and the lows and how to balance it all. That’s all part of becoming a pro. That doesn’t happen overnight. He has some experiences and when it doesn’t go well, you’re either going to fold from it or you’re going to learn and grow from it. Jake and Robo, and these kids, are going to learn and grow from it.”
After the NHL season ended, Oettinger joined teammate Jason Robertson, playing for Team USA at the World Championships. He was equally impressive at this tournament, adding vital international experience to his resume. Going into the 2021-22 season, the Stars have four NHL-caliber goaltenders on the roster. This will be fierce competition at training camp and Oettinger will need to impress to earn his spot. No matter what happens next season though, it is clear that he is the future in the crease for the Stars.
Overall Grade: A
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!