Oettinger Needs Rest, But Can Dallas Afford to Give it to Him?

Mar 22, 2023 - 5:30 PM
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Photo by Sam Hodde/NHLI via Getty Images

For much of the 2022-23 season, Jake Oettinger has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. He’s routinely been one of the league leader’s in save percentage (SV%), and helped the Dallas Stars reach become one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

But lately, the Stars’ star goaltender has looked shaky at times, letting in shots that no good NHL goaltender should, let alone an elite one. Just check out his stat line from his past 10 games, per Hockey Reference:

Over that span, Oettinger has only had two games with two goals allowed and none with fewer. Across his first 44 games, he posted a .926 SV% — in the last ten, it’s a ghastly .875 SV%. That in turn has brought his season-long SV% to a measly .916, a benchmark he’s only surpassed once across these last ten games.

Overall, Oettinger is still among the NHL’s best — he’s 7th in the league in SV% (.916), Goals Against Average (2.51), and Goals Saved Above Average (18.64) among goaltenders with at least 30 games played, and 8th in Goals Against % (88). The issue is that he should be in conversation as possibly the best, and this slump has more than likely killed any Vezina Trophy consideration.

Oettinger, of course, it well aware of his shortcomings as of late. After last night’s overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken, in which he surrendered five goals for the second time in a row, he had this to say:

“Let in 10 goals in the last two games. Something’s got to change. The guys have scored like crazy, so it’s on me to keep the puck out of our net, and I haven’t done that… I expect to play every night, and I want to play every night. I keep playing like that, I’m not going to. I want to be in the net. I feel great, confident in myself.”

Something has to change indeed, and the answer lies within that same quote: “I want to play every night.”

That is the issue with Oettinger right now: he’s simply been overworked. Since Scott Wedgewood last appeared in, the Stars have played 14 games, with Oettinger getting the full workload in twelve of them. That would be the equivalent of playing 70 games across an 82 game season, in a league where hitting 60 games as a goaltender is considered a very heavy workload.

Indeed, the only goaltender who’s played more than Oettinger this year is Connor Hellebuyck. His season has been strikingly similar to the Stars’ netminder: he helped bring the Winnipeg Jets to the top of the conference with stellar play, matched by very few if any in the league. But the long season has taken it’s toll on him — before his .967 SV% performance against the Arizona Coyotes last night, he had posted an .878 SV% in his previous ten.

So this isn’t a problem unique to Oettinger, and it’s one that has a relatively simple solution: give him more nights off. Strive to be less like the Winnipeg Jets and more like the Boston Bruins, who have a 43-30 split between their starter and backup. Let Oettinger simply be the starter, and not a workhorse, every night goalie.

But the NHL is never that simple, and that solution has one major flaw in it: I’m not sure the Stars can afford to sit Oettinger.

First of all, Scott Wedgewood isn’t playing because he’s injured, with no clear timetable for a return.

After “I like where we’re at,” perhaps Stars General Manager Jim Nill’s most famous saying among the Stars fanbase is, “You can never have too many goalies.” But the Stars’ third string goaltender for much of the season, Anton Khudobin, was dealt away as part of the Max Domi trade to make the salary cap work. And honestly, he probably wouldn’t have been a much better than the current options, Matt Murray and Remi Poirier.

Of course, you can still win NHL games an AHL-caliber goaltender — the Kraken did just that last night with Joey Daccord, although he was played more so out of necessity than desire. But if you want such a goalie to succeed, you need two things: a strong defensive system around him to minimize high danger scoring chances and keep the shot count low and a high-powered offense that can make up for any goals against.

In years past, the Stars have had the first but not the second.

We saw the Stars’ defensive struggles in full force last night, in which they had 29(!) giveaways, or almost one every two minutes on average. That led to a variety of odd-man rushes for Seattle, which was a large part in why Oettinger gave up five goals.

And just like the goaltending situation, that too is an issue Dallas can’t easily correct. I want Nils Lundkvist back in the lineup as much as any Stars fan, but it’s not as if he’s a shutdown defensemen. Same for Thomas Harley, who’s currently in the AHL but would be a cheap call-up option. Both players’ benefits on-ice would be keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and thus away from the Stars’ goaltender, but if the Stars turn the puck over like they did last night... does that even matter?

The other solution would be to simply play your best defensmen more, but that comes with its own issues. There’s a steep dropoff in talent after Miro Heiskanen, which is why he was the only one to get extra minutes last night, finishing with 30:09(!) played. The next highest ice time for a skater — not defenseman, but skater — on the team was Jamie Benn, clocking in at 21:36. Heiskanen may be a unicorn, but if that’s to be the new norm for this team, he’s going to be worn out just as much as Oettinger.

So the Stars can’t improve their defense easily, which means Dallas can’t make life easier for one of their AHL goaltenders. That still leaves the team with one last option: simply throw them to the wolves in games you can afford to lose and simply hope for the best. Dallas could have done that last night, since they aren’t competing with Seattle for playoff seeding. They still could going forward — the Stars have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, facing off against teams like the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Arizona Coyotes.

...Except, once again, things aren’t that simple. First of all, Oettinger and the gang have struggled against all three of those teams recently, indicating Dallas might not have any “free games” left on the schedule. And even if there did... can the Stars afford to risk it instead of taking the “easy” two points? Dallas is in a tight three-way race for the top of the Central Division along with the Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild. The two teams that don’t win that race will face each other in a brutal first round matchup, one that Dallas wants to avoid at all costs.

Of course, this particular problem in its entirety might have been avoided in its entirety if it weren’t for the Stars’ dreadful overtime record. Yes, it’s not a reason to be concerned about the team’s play, especially when it comes playoff time. But it is an issue when it comes to playoff seeding — were it not for the 14 loser points, Dallas might have been sitting comfortably not just at the top of the division, but the whole Western Conference. They could have afforded to lose a low-stakes game here and there, instead of fighting desperately for every point they can muster.

And so the Stars continue to play Oettinger, because they can’t really afford not to. And the irony of it all is that even after running him through the ground, the Stars might still end up facing Minnesota and Colorado in the first round. And even if they win the Central and face a Wild Card team, Oettinger will still be playing every game of the playoffs. The overworked problem isn’t going away — it’s only going to get worse.

Play Oettinger more and exhaust him right before the playoffs, or give him a break and set him a much harder and more tiring matchup for the first round. It’s a Catch-22, and unlike high school English class, there aren’t any CliffsNotes to help the Stars out of this conundrum.

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