In the last display of Stars hockey, Jake Oettinger was the star of the show. There had been “welcome to the NHL” moments — standing on his head in Colorado on Feb. 15 or outdueling future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury in Chicago on Feb. 18 — but a .954 save percentage over a seven-game playoff series against Calgary — and against a couple of 100-point scorers while matching up against a Vezina finalist — was the signature introductory moment.
That performance could not have come at a better time for Oettinger, who entered the offseason as a restricted free agent due to a new contract. While Oettinger’s playoff performance announced his arrival to the hockey world, there is still no new contract, and that could cause reasonable concern with training camp set to open next month.
By all indications, there has been little dialogue between the two sides, even though each side has made its feelings about the other very clear. According to sources on both sides, Oettinger, who trusts his agents with the business side and is not directly involved in negotiations, wants to remain with the Stars. The Stars, who traded up in the first round of the 2017 draft to select Oettinger, believe he is their future and have no reservations about Oettinger as a person.
What, then, is causing the impasse?
One issue is the lack of comparable contracts. Of the top 40 goaltenders in average annual values, ranging from Carey Price’s $10.5 million to Kaapo Kahkonen’s $2.75 million, only one goaltender was as young as Oettinger when he signed his deal. That goaltender is Carter Hart, who agreed to a three-year, $11.9 million ($3.979 million AAV) last summer, just days before his 23rd birthday. Oettinger turned 23 on Dec. 18.
Hart had a larger sample size than Oettinger, starting 95 games in three seasons before landing his deal. In his first two seasons, he had .917 and .914 save percentages while starting 30 and 40 games, respectively. However, in the season leading into his contract summer last year, Hart had a .877 save percentage in 25 starts during the 56-game season.
In 2020-21, Oettinger started 24 games as a rookie in the 56-game season and was the Stars’ best goaltender as he posted a .911 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average. Despite being relegated to the AHL to begin the season, Oettinger started 46 games last season and had a .914 save percentage, including stretches in which he performed like one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and a significant stretch late in the season in which he was asked to carry the Stars alone because of a lack of options behind him. He followed that up with one of the great goaltending performances in NHL postseason history.
Oettinger has 25 fewer regular season starts to his name than Hart did when he signed his deal last summer but he’s essentially the same age and coming off of a much better season and postseason. Hart’s $3,979 million is not the only data point, but given the parallels in age and production, Hart is viewed as a starting point for what Oettinger deserves.
If $3.979 million is the baseline, how high does Oettinger’s number go? Midway through the 2020-21 season, Vancouver handed fellow American goaltender Thatcher Demko a five-year, $25 million deal for a $5 million AAV. At the time Demko signed his deal, he was older than Oettinger today (25 to 23), had a smaller sample size (59 starts to 70 starts) and had inferior career statistics (.911 save percentage and 2.92 GAA to .913 save percentage and 2.46 GAA).
The 13 netminders above the $5 million AAV mark are some of the more established players, many with Stanley Cup and/or Vezina considerations. There have been a number of other players considered by Oettinger’s camp as comps but these couple of transactions from last year show where the valuation of a contract between $4 million AAV and somewhere around $5 million AAV comes into play.
The Stars have their own considerations that make meeting that price point somewhat challenging. The first is their salary-cap situation. Dallas has $11.4 million in cap space but has to fit in Oettinger and Jason Robertson, who is coming off a Calder Trophy runner-up season and a 40-goal season to begin his NHL career. Robertson’s contract will certainly be more expensive than Oettinger’s. According to a source, those negotiations have had their own obstacles.
If the Stars met Oettinger’s camp at their minimum desired price point, it would leave the team a little over $7 million to sign Robertson. That could still be enough to get Robertson signed on a bridge deal but barring a hometown discount, a long-term deal would require north of $8 million. Oettinger’s camp is understanding of the Stars’ cap situation, including the opportunity to potentially cash in in 2025, but that won’t result in a steep discount.
The other factor for the Stars is caution. Arguably more than with any other position in hockey, the development path for goaltenders can be peculiar. Oettinger’s rookie season is a good example of that. Oettinger didn’t get any Calder votes but six goaltenders did in the 2020-21 season. Of those six, four are no longer on the team they played for as a rookie, just two seasons ago. The other two guys finished top-six in Vezina voting last season, including 2022 winner Igor Shesterkin. While the Stars have liked what they’ve seen from Oettinger so far, they are tasked with ensuring they don’t overreact to the Calgary playoff series — or just the general sample size of two seasons, one of which was shortened.
Where the Stars’ reasoning of caution with Oettinger loses weight is that they’ve had a cautious approach with Oettinger, arguably to a fault, throughout his young career so far. At each turn, Oettinger has risen above their fears. The Stars didn’t want Oettinger playing in the NHL in 2020-21 but Ben Bishop’s injury situation and a lack of other options forced their hand. The team then wanted to shelter Oettinger as the No. 2 but Anton Khudobin’s struggles, along with Oettinger’s NHL readiness, led to a bigger role as a rookie.
Despite Oettinger proving to be NHL-caliber, the Stars still wanted to take it slow. They signed Braden Holtby last summer, which unofficially relegated Oettinger to the AHL, where he would eventually officially begin the season. Once Holtby’s injury and Khudobin’s ineffectiveness cracked the door open for Oettinger, he seized the opportunity.
In contract negotiations, the player and the team often get pitted against each other. In situations like the one with Oettinger and the Stars, there is a common intention. Oettinger wants to be the best goaltender he can possibly be; the Stars want that exact same thing. The notion that a franchise that’s been starved for a talented young goaltender and moved up to pick one in the first round of the draft doesn’t want to set him up to succeed is misplaced emotion. The Stars and Oettinger have simply gone about things in different ways.
Dallas has handled things with caution and skepticism while Oettinger has handled things with confidence. Oettinger’s confidence has held up so far, on the ice. Now, the same dynamic is at play at the negotiating table.
Where do things go from here?
In any contract negotiation, there are two major sticking points: Term and AAV. A source said Oettinger’s camp is open when it comes to term. Oettinger wants to be in Dallas long-term and if a long-term deal is able to get done, that’s great. If the numbers game results in a shorter offer, they’re open to that as well. The AAV is where there isn’t unconditional flexibility. Given the Stars’ cap situation, it’s unlikely Oettinger’s camp will be able to get exactly what they want but they won’t settle for something they deem to be unfair relative to the market that has already been set.
A player in Oettinger’s position, as a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, is where the team has the most leverage. A restricted free agent with arbitration rights or an unrestricted free agent are situations in which the player gains more leverage on the team. Still, Oettinger is the team’s No. 1 goaltender and if the Stars went into the season with Scott Wedgewood and Khudobin as the duo, they would obviously be a worse team than if Oettinger was in the picture.
While both sides would like to reach a resolution as soon as possible, the Stars are in no rush. Training camp begins in a month and a half and the season begins in a little over two months. Those are the primary pressure points at which deadlines could lead to a deal. Until then, there isn’t much urgency. However, that doesn’t mean the timeline is unimportant. Because of the Stars’ cap situation and Robertson’s looming contract, there is potential for another wrench to be thrown into the mix, and that is the possibility of an offer sheet.
Offer sheets are a rare occurrence in the NHL but so is the supply of talented 23-year-old goaltenders who have shown potential to be franchise cornerstones. If Robertson’s deal gets done first, it would give any interested teams a firm number as to how high they need to go in order to put the Stars in a bind. At that point, the Stars would be forced to offload player(s) in order to create no space to keep Oettinger.
While this seems like a dicey proposition, a Stars front office source expressed no concern about potential offer sheets with Oettinger. For one, the player also has to sign the offer sheet, and Oettinger has shown no indication of being unhappy in Dallas. Second, the Stars would have the opportunity to match, which they would for any reasonable tag. The only way a team could truly handicap the Stars or make them consider the compensation return would be if that team offered Oettinger more than $6.3 million AAV (a first-, second- and third-round picks compensation package) or more than $8.4 million AAV (two firsts, a second and a third-round pick compensation package).
One significant, realistic possibility that has to be considered is a training-camp holdout. As noted, Oettinger doesn’t have much leverage in this situation, but a holdout would be one way to put pressure on the Stars.
Sometimes, it only takes one major breaking point to get things rolling in a negotiation. That point has not been reached yet between Oettinger and the Stars. Oettinger has been business as usual this offseason, preparing at home in Minnesota for the upcoming season while his camp handles the business side.
(Top photo of Jake Oettinger: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)