You never want to see your top goaltender getting hurt, especially when the man in question seemingly is always in the Vezina Trophy conversation.
But for a young goalie, that could mean opportunity, and that's exactly what 22-year-old prospect Jake Oettinger has going for him. After backing up Anton Khudobin through three games (three spectacular outings for him, I may add), Oettinger is about to make his first NHL start on Thursday when the Stars face off against the Detroit Red Wings at home.
On one hand, it feels like a long-time coming. Oettinger was the first goaltender selected at the 2017 draft, a draft that has already seen Michal DiPietro (VAN), Gilles Senn (NJD), Dylan Ferguson (VGK) and Cayden Primeau (MTL) earn game action over the past three seasons. Oettinger, a product of the US National Team Development Program, was one of the team's better goalies before heading off to the NCAA, where he helped Boston University win a Hockey East championship and a tournament MVP title on top of gold and bronze with the United States in international competition.
Teams have shown a willingness to give their young goalies a shot in recent years. Carter Hart and Ilya Samsonov are two other U-24 starters in the NHL, while six total played in at least 10 games a year ago, highlighted by starters Hart and Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD). With Ben Bishop signed until 2022-23, the Stars can still be patient, but there's going to be no shortage of opportunities over the next few seasons.
Khudobin, the team's saving grace during the 2020 playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup final appearance, is currently in the first of a three-year pact, but he's also a top candidate to be picked by Seattle if the team elects to go that route. If so, that'll give Oettinger a chance at the backup spot next year, but, again, we're talking about a player with no NHL experience at this point. There's still time for lots of things to change.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Oettinger has fantastic size for an NHL goalie and can move well in his crease. In fact, he doesn't just rely on his size to stop pucks because he's got the quickness and athleticism you typically see in a smaller goalie that needs to compensate in some fashion. That does lead to the occasional overcommitment on a shot, but it's something he's learned to contain over time.
Oettinger was ranked third among Stars' prospects in our annual Future Watch issue from 2020 and was 56th overall in the final player rankings. Texas Stars goalie coach Jim Bedard praised his agility and recovery in the AHL, but pointed out the need to improve his puckhandling. "He's a lot more efficient when he pushes and slides," Bedard said.
Getting the start against Detroit can be seen simply as trying to get him a confidence booster, given the pure talent deficit between the two clubs. But you want your young goalie to have a positive mindset and the fact that they're planning on resting the guy that's been red-hot to start the season to give Oettinger a chance is a great sign that the team believes in him.
The abundance of high-end young goalies over the past few years has knocked Oettinger's hype down a bit, but through no fault of his own. Oettinger was good for a mid-pack Texas team last year and even saw a bit of spot duty for the Stars in relief of Khudobin during the playoffs. The Stars still view Oettinger as the goalie of the future, and this is just the beginning for him.
What happens on Thursday won't define his career, but if we've learned anything about Oettinger's body of work, it won't be too long before he's the No. 1 man between the pipes long term for Dallas.