Jake Oettingers tall task: Being the Dallas Stars future in goal

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

JAKE OETTINGER FELT INVINCIBLE.

The Dallas Stars were in a Game 7 overtime against the Calgary Flames in the first round of last season’s playoffs. They were there because of Oettinger, the second-year goaltender who had stopped 208 of the 218 shots he had faced in the previous six games.

The finale against the Flames was the thrilling capper on a brilliant series: stopping 64 of 66 shots on goal into the first overtime to become the second goalie to make 60 or more saves in a Game 7 since 1995, when the stat was first tracked.

“You’re so immersed in what you’re doing,” Oettinger recalled. “You feel like you’re never going to get scored on.”

Johnny Gaudreau took the 67th shot that Oettinger faced, hurling the puck at the net from an odd angle to the goalie’s right. It flew over Oettinger’s shoulder and behind him at 15:09 of overtime. Horns blared. Red lights flashed. The Calgary bench emptied. The Stars had been eliminated.

Oettinger couldn’t bring himself to watch his historic effort again during the offseason, given the outcome. “I’ve seen the highlights but I haven’t watched the full thing yet,” he said. “If we would have won that game? Yeah, I would have watched it.”

Looking back at the playoffs, Dallas general manager Jim Nill still chuckles at the irony: What some considered to be the Stars’ biggest playoff liability turned into their greatest asset.

“When we started the series, probably one of the biggest question marks we had was that we had a young goalie getting his first Stanley Cup playoff action,” Nill said. “This résumé isn’t very long. How is he going to handle it? Now we look back on it, and I’ve never seen a young man enjoy the moment as much as he did. He cherished being in the net.”

Oettinger remained in the net after Gaudreau’s overtime goal. Stars captain Jamie Benn skated over to his goalie, still on one knee, to console him.

“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t even have been close to overtime or having a chance to win,” Benn said. “He’s a phenomenal young goalie. He’s going to be great for this organization for a long time.”

The future is now for Oettinger and Dallas. With a new three-year contract in hand, the 23-year-old goalie entered the 2022-23 season at the top of the Stars’ depth chart for the first time.

“He’s our No. 1 goalie,” Nill said. “He’s grabbed that opportunity. It’s not like you come into a season and say, ‘we’re just going to give it to you.’ No, he’s earned it.”

NILL FIRST SAW Oettinger with the U.S. national development team in Detroit.

“We’ve known him since he was 16,” Nill said. “When you’re playing for the U.S. in these tournaments, you’re a pretty good player. So we got to know him and that’s why we moved a little higher to select him.”

Dallas had the third overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, selecting Miro Heiskanen. But when Nill saw Oettinger was still on the board late in the first round — no goalies had been drafted yet — he sent the 29th overall pick (from Anaheim) and a third-rounder to Chicago for the 26th overall pick and selected Oettinger.

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They respected his character. They loved his size. Oettinger is listed at 6-foot-5, and nothing about that is generous.

“It’s weird. Some guys look tall and they’re lanky. You get next to him, and he’s tall and has size,” Nill said.

After Oettinger and Ben Bishop, who is listed at 6-foot-7, do the Stars officially have a “type” when it comes to their goaltending?

Nill laughed. “We’ve been fortunate that way,” he said. “But that’s also why Bishop has been a great mentor for him.”

Oettinger joined the Stars in 2019 after three seasons with Boston University. His development track had its twists and turns.

He played 38 games with the AHL Texas Stars in 2019-20 before the COVID pandemic shuttered sports. His NHL debut was in the Western Conference “bubble” playoffs. Oettinger was the Stars’ third-string insurance goaltender. Then Bishop was injured and Oettinger found himself backing up Anton Khudobin. His NHL debut came in 17 minutes of relief against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference finals. He also saw 19 minutes of action in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In total, Oettinger faced eight shots and made eight saves.

Bishop’s status for the 2020-21 season impacted Oettinger. The Stars hoped the former Vezina Trophy winner could make a comeback, but Bishop missed the entire season. Oettinger ended up playing 29 games in back of Khudobin, going 11-8-7 with a .911 save percentage. Analytically, he was superior to Khudobin, who played below replacement level. Oettinger saved 2.97 goals above average.

But at the start of the 2021-22 season, Oettinger was shocked to find himself back in the AHL, as the Stars went with free agent signing Braden Holtby and Khudobin as their netminders. (Bishop, who hadn’t seen the ice since August 2020, officially retired in December 2021.)

Nill said it was a call they made based on trying to get Oettinger more reps. “We knew we had to get him down in the minors. He wasn’t happy about it. But if he looks back, it was probably the best thing for him,” the GM said.

Oettinger returned to the NHL club on Nov. 16, 2021. He gradually took over the crease, starting 46 games, winning 30 of them and posting a .914 save percentage. He closed out the season winning five of seven starts before his masterful series against the Flames.

The Calgary series changed things for Oettinger, who could sense his stock rising considerably with peers around the NHL after that performance.

“I could feel it a little bit,” he said. “Everyone’s watching the playoffs.”

HOCKEY NICKNAMES AREN’T exactly complex, so it should come as no surprise that Oettinger’s is “Otter.” What is surprising: That the goalie has his own mascot.

“My guy does a little otter cartoon guy,” Oettinger said. “Last year I threw a little cowboy hat on him.”

Goalie mask designer David Gunnarsson created an animated otter that has adorned several of Oettinger’s masks.

“I was like, this could be like my thing,” Oettinger said.

Last season, it was a cowboy otter. This season, it’s a golfing otter, complete with gloves and a club.

The otter meme goes beyond the mask for Oettinger. Cartoon otters have appeared on T-shirts. Otters have become a way for fans to celebrate him on social media. “When I have a good game, people tweet out a GIF with otters,” he said.

How many otters Oettinger receives this season will depend on how he handles being the No. 1 guy. Stopping 60-plus pucks in a single game takes a different mental fortitude than backstopping a team to the postseason in 60-plus games. One made him feel invincible. The other makes him feel indispensable.

“I think for me, it’s going to be a lot of the mental side this season,” he said. “I’ve never come in as a No. 1. I’m just going to have to deal with … not ‘pressure,’ but more responsibility, obviously.”

The Stars are a team with a veteran core — Benn, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski — augmented by a collection of young stars under 24, like Heiskanen, Jason Robertson and Oettinger. The goalie believes it’s on him to create the foundation for that roster to thrive.

“It’s going to be up to me to get this team back into the playoffs,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. But it’s what I signed up for.”

Oettinger signed something else during the offseason: a three-year contract worth $4 million against the salary cap annually.

Nill said the Calgary series didn’t necessarily complicate those negotiations. For all the confidence he has in Oettinger, this was still a 23-year-old goalie with two seasons and 77 games to his credit.

“He did a good job for us during the year, but the body of work was a short time frame,” Nill said.

Their contract talks stretched through the late summer. Could Dallas go higher than the $3.979 million AAV that the Flyers gave Carter Hart in August 2021 after 101 NHL games?

On Sept. 1, the Stars landed on the $4 million AAV deal with Oettinger, who is a restricted free agent when it expires in 2025.

“We got something done. Maybe a lot for a player that played that number of games. But he deserved it,” Nill said. “He’s already earned it based on who he is and knowing how his teammates want to play for him — that tells you something.

“He’s a player with high-end character. And he’s our future, going forward.”

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