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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.
— Is it opening night yet? (@StarsCountdown) May 20, 2022
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.”