On the last show of Stars hockey, Jake Oettinger was the star of the show. There were “welcome to the NHL” moments — standing on his head in Colorado on Feb. 15 or beating future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury in Chicago on Feb. 18 — but a .954 save percentage over a play- off of a seven-game series against Calgary — and against a pair of 100-point scorers as they go up against a Vezina finalist — was the characteristic introductory moment.
That performance could not have come at a better time for Oettinger, who entered the off-season as a restricted free agent due to a new contract. Although Oettinger’s play-off performance heralded his arrival to the hockey world, there is still no new contract, and that could cause reasonable concern about the training camp that kicks off next month.
By all indications, there has been little dialogue between the two sides, although both sides have made their feelings about the other very clear. According to sources on both sides, Oettinger, who entrusts his agents with the business side and is not directly involved in the negotiations, wants to stay with the Stars. The Stars, who traded 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.
So what causes the deadlock?
One problem is the lack of comparable contracts. Of the top 40 goalkeepers with average annual values ranging from Carey Price’s $10.5 million to Kaapo Kahkonen’s $2.75 million, only one goalkeeper was as young as Oettinger when he signed his contract. That goalkeeper is Carter Hart, who agreed to a three-year contract for $11.9 million ($3.979 million AAV) just days before his 23rd birthday last summer. Oettinger turned 23 on December 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 a save percentage of 0.917 and 0.914 starting 30 and 40 games, respectively. However, in the season leading up to his summer contract last year, Hart had a save percentage of .877 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 best goalkeeper in the Stars with a save rate of 0.911 and 2.36 goals against average. Despite his relegation to the AHL to start the season, Oettinger started 46 games last season and had a save rate of 0.914, including pieces where he performed as one of the best goalkeepers in the NHL and a significant stretch late in the season where he was asked to wear the Stars alone due to lack of options behind him. He followed that up with one of the great goalkeeping performances in post-season NHL history.
Oettinger has 25 fewer season starts to his name than Hart when he signed his contract last summer, but he is essentially the same age and coming out of a much better season and post season. Hart’s $3.979 million isn’t the only data point, but given the parallels in age and production, Hart is seen as a starting point for what Oettinger earns.
If $3.979 million is the baseline, how high does Oettinger’s number go? Midway through the 2020-21 season, Vancouver handed fellow American goalkeeper Thatcher Demko a $25 million five-year 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 stats (0.911 save percentage and 2.92 GAA to . 913 save percentage). and 2.46 GAA).
The 13 netminders above $5 million AAV are some of the more established players, many with Stanley Cup and/or Vezina considerations. There are a number of other players who are considered comps by Oettinger’s camp, but these few trades 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 somewhat challenging. The first is their salary ceiling situation. Dallas has $11.4 million in cap space but must fit Oettinger and Jason Robertson, who have completed a second season of the Calder Trophy and a 40-goal season to kick off his NHL career. Robertson’s contract will certainly be more expensive than Oettinger’s. According to a source, those negotiations have had obstacles of their own.
If the Stars met Oettinger’s camp at their minimum desired price, the team would leave just over $7 million to sign Robertson. That might still be enough to get Robertson to sign a bridging agreement, but without a residence discount, a long-term deal would cost more than $8 million. Oettinger’s camp is understanding of the Stars’ situation, including the possibility of potentially making money in 2025, but that won’t result in a steep discount.
The other factor for the Stars is caution. Undoubtedly more than any other position in hockey, the development path for goalkeepers can be peculiar. Oettinger’s rookie season is a good example of this. Oettinger did not get Calder votes, but six goalkeepers 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 in the top six in the Vezina voting last season, including 2022 winner Igor Shesterkin. While the Stars have liked what they’ve seen from Oettinger so far, their job is to make sure they don’t overreact to Calgary’s playoff series — or just the overall sample size of two seasons, one of which was shortened.
Where the Stars’ cautious reasoning with Oettinger loses power is that during his young career they’ve taken a cautious approach to Oettinger thus far, likely to a mistake. At every turn, Oettinger has risen above their fears. The Stars didn’t want Oettinger to play in the NHL in 2020-21, but Ben Bishop’s injury and lack of other options forced their hand. The team then wanted to accommodate 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 appearing to be NHL-caliber, the Stars still wanted to take it easy. They signed Braden Holtby last summer, who unofficially relegated Oettinger to the AHL, where he would eventually officially start the season. When Holtby’s injury and Khudobin’s ineffectiveness broke the door for Oettinger, he seized the opportunity.
In contract negotiations, the player and the team often come up against each other. In situations like the one with Oettinger and the Stars, there is a common intention. Oettinger wants to be the best goalkeeper he can be; the stars want exactly the same thing. The idea that a franchise that has starved for a talented young goalkeeper and moved up to pick one in the first round of the draft won’t let it succeed is a misplaced emotion. The Stars and Oettinger just went about their business in different ways.
Dallas has approached things with caution and skepticism, while Oettinger has approached things with confidence. Oettinger’s confidence has so far held up on the ice. Now the same dynamic is at play at the negotiating table.
Where do things go from here?
There are two major bottlenecks in any contract negotiation: Term and AAV. A source said Oettinger’s camp is open if it comes to term. Oettinger wants to be in Dallas for the long haul and if a long-term deal can be made, that’s great. If the numbers game results in a shorter offer, they are open to that as well. The AAV is where there is no unconditional flexibility. Given the Stars’ cap situation, it’s unlikely that Oettinger’s camp will be able to get exactly what they want, but they won’t settle for something they deem unfair to the market already established.
A player in Oettinger’s position, as a restricted free agent with no arbitration courts, is where the team has the most influence. A restricted free agent with arbitration rights or an unrestricted free agent are situations where the player gains more influence over the team. Still, Oettinger is the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper and if the Stars went into the season with Scott Wedgewood and Khudobin as a duo, they would clearly be a worse team than if Oettinger was in the picture.
While both sides want to reach a solution as quickly as possible, the Stars are in no rush. The training camp starts in a month and a half and the season starts in just over two months. Those are the main bottlenecks where deadlines can lead to a deal. Until then, there is not much urgency. That doesn’t mean the timeline is unimportant, though. Due to the Stars’ cap situation and Robertson’s looming contract, there is a possibility that another key will be thrown into the mix, and that is the possibility of an offer letter.
Offer slips are rare in the NHL, but so are talented 23-year-old goalkeepers who have shown they can be the cornerstones of the franchise. If Robertson’s deal closes first, interested teams would be given a clear number on how high to go to put the Stars in trouble. At that point, the Stars would be forced to discharge player(s) to create cap space to keep Oettinger.
While this seems like a precarious proposition, a Stars front office source expressed no concerns about potential offer sheets at Oettinger. First, the player must also sign the bidding form and Oettinger has shown no indication of being unhappy in Dallas. Second, the Stars would have a chance to match, which they would do for any reasonable tag. The only way a team could really penalize the Stars or make them think about compensation would be if that team made Oettinger more than $6.3 million AAV (a compensation package for the first, second, and third rounds) or more than $8.4 million AAV (two firsts, a second and a third round pick compensation package).
An important, realistic possibility to consider is a training camp. As noted, Oettinger doesn’t have much leverage in this situation, but a holdout would be one way to pressure the Stars.
Sometimes it only takes one major breaking point to get things started in a negotiation. That point has not yet been reached between Oettinger and the Stars. Oettinger has continued as usual this offseason, preparing for the upcoming season at home in Minnesota while his camp handles the business side.
(Jake Oettinger top photo: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)