After the 2020-21 season, the Dallas Stars had questions about their goaltending that needed answers. With three NHL-caliber goalies on the roster and with the offseason’s Seattle Kraken expansion draft and other variables, it seemed that any combination of the three might be in the crease when the 2021-22 season began. The prospect of adding another name into the fold seemed far from anyone’s mind. However, when free agency began on July 26, that is exactly what general manager Jim Nill did.
With the addition of Braden Holtby, the Stars now have four goalies on the roster, and management has some work to do before the puck drops on Oct. 14 as the question remains: who will be in the net for the Stars next season?
Ben Bishop has had a roller-coaster career. Battling through injuries every season, he has been an elite goaltender when healthy and has plenty of experience. He has not played since early in the 2020 Playoffs when he played three games before suffering a lower-body injury. After undergoing knee surgery that offseason, he had complications in his recovery, which caused him to miss the entire 2020-21 season.
The Stars are hopeful that he will be ready for training camp, but that is still unknown, and at 34 years old, he may miss more time in the future.
“There is no definite timeframe,” Nill said. “Is he going to be ready to go? He may be. He may not be. And that’s why we had to make sure we covered ourselves.”
Khudobin was the Stars’ hero of the 2020 Playoffs. Following Bishop’s injury, he stepped in and led his team to the Stanley Cup Final. Before that, he excelled as a career backup to some of the best goalies in the league. With Bishop still rehabbing last season, Khudobin was expected to be the starter, with high expectations after his recent playoff performance.
However, dealing with a COVID-19 diagnosis and off-ice issues, he struggled. After a great early start in which he looked to be in top form, he began to fade, ending the season with a mediocre 12-11-7 record and a .905 save percentage. In the crucial moments when his team needed a save, he was consistently unable to deliver, and the Stars missed the postseason. He hopes to be back to his old self and in full health going into training camp after the lingering effects of COVID seemed to hang around all of last season.
Holtby was a big surprise on the first day of free agency. It was clear that Nill did not trust the team’s goaltending depth, with questions on how things would play out. Holtby signed a one-year, $2 million deal, and although he is coming off the two worst seasons of his career, he is a proven winner and was one of the most elite goaltenders in the league before that. With the Washington Capitals, he won the Vezina Trophy, William M. Jennings Trophy, was a multiple-time NHL All-Star, and won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
At just 31 years old, a change of scenery might return him to form, which would be a welcomed sight for the Stars.
Oettinger was expected to be the Stars’ future in net after he was drafted 26th overall in 2017. His chance to prove it came earlier than expected after Bishop’s injuries, and he served as the backup and even made his NHL debut in the playoff bubble in 2020.
Coming into the 2020-21 season, he was set for the backup role again, but this time knowing he would get his chance to play meaningful minutes. He recorded his first career win in his first start against the Detroit Red Wings and only improved from there. Finishing the season with a .911 save percentage, a 2.36 goals-against average, and an 11-8-7 record, the rookie was impressive. Along with his solid play, he showed maturity, preparation, and professionalism rare in such a young player.
Next season will be the final year of his entry-level contract, which will allow the Stars the freedom to send him down to the American Hockey League without clearing waivers. While the odds are stacked against him as the youngest goalie in the organization, management will be hoping he takes another step forward and challenges for the starting job.
Scenario A: Bishop Is Healthy at Training Camp
I started with this scenario not because it is the most likely but because it is the simplest. If Bishop is healthy, he will be the starting goaltender. The Stars will need to keep an eye on his health throughout the season and perhaps lighten his load a bit, but he will be their guy. After that, it will likely be down to Khudobin or Holtby to serve as his backup. Whichever goalie falls behind in that battle should be on the trading block to find a key player in return or unload some salary-cap space. While Oettinger has a chance to prove he belongs, he will likely begin the season in the AHL and be ready for a call-up if needed.
Scenario B: Bishop is Not Healthy at Training Camp
With Bishop’s status still unknown and all that has happened since his knee injury in 2020, this scenario seems the most likely. The Stars could play it safe by placing him on long-term injured reserve and remove his $4,916,667 cap hit for the time being. That would allow Dallas to be under the salary cap and perhaps even add to their roster.
With Bishop out of the picture, the battle remains the same between the other three goalies, but now it will be for the starting job. The most likely scenario here is that the top two goalies at the end of training camp will play a 1A/1B rotation to start the season. Dallas has benefitted from using a fairly even split in recent years, so it’s unlikely that one goalie earns most of the starts out of the gate. Khudobin and Holtby should be the top candidates to fill these spots with their proven performance and experience, but no one really knows how either will respond after poor seasons.
While it may seem like I am dismissing Oettinger, I am not. He is coming off a great season, has shown maturity, and has proven that he is overqualified for the AHL. The youngster will get just as much of a look as the veterans, and if he is the best goalie, he will play. However, the fact is that his contract allows him to be moved up and down from the AHL, which I believe the Stars will take advantage of, at least early on.
Bishop is headed to the injured reserve list. If that is the case, I think that all three goalies have a good chance to make the final roster, but the two veterans have a leg up on the rookie. Khudobin and Holtby will start the season in net for the Stars and split time similar to the Khudobin-Oettinger duo last season. Whichever goalie is playing best will start. If both goalies struggle, Oettinger is just down the road in Austin, ready for his chance, and he has proven he can perform on short notice.
“All I can say is our philosophy is the best goaltender is going to play,” Stars’ head coach Rick Bowness said. “We’ll give them all an opportunity to play and then we’ll sort it out and determine which one gives us the best chance to win. Training camp is going to be huge for each of them, and they’re all motivated to perform. On the first day of training camp, we’ll see who’s healthy and who’s ready to go, and then we’ll start sorting it out then.
This scenario also creates another dynamic duo of Oettinger and Adam Scheel in the AHL, which should be fun to watch. However, who will start in net for the Stars in October will likely remain unknown until the end of training camp.
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!