Every time hockey pundits discuss NHL awards, someone inevitably brings up the point that the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player, could very well be won by a goaltender every year. Much like the quarterback in football, the goaltending position has an outsized impact on a hockey team’s results. You either have great goaltending or you ache for it as its absence gets highlighted by a blinking red light.
In recent years, the Stars have been among the teams fortunate enough to fall in the first camp. That high-caliber netminding has come from a variety of sources. Ben Bishop, in his only real playoff run during a six-year contract in Dallas, dragged an anemic Stars offense to the brink of the conference finals in 2019. The year after that, Anton Khudobin made a cameo as an elite goalie, taking the Stars within two wins of a Stanley Cup before Dallas ran out of gas against Tampa Bay. And, of course, you remember Jake Oettinger facing Calgary down all by his lonesome this past spring:
Goaltending really matters, and I’ll forgive anyone for taking that statement in a dour way given Oettinger’s recent lower-body injury. While he’s scheduled to be re-evaluated in a few days, and while the Stars’ schedule is relatively light over the next 10, any amount of missed games by Oettinger can be disconcerting. Those of you who recall the days of a gaping black hole in the backup spot behind Kari Lehtonen likely have already had your goaltending trauma reawakened.
If I may, please allow me to put on my therapist pantsuit for a moment: the Stars are better positioned than at any time in recent memory to withstand the loss of Jake Oettinger. For a little while. Probably.
First, let’s just acknowledge up front that 1) The Stars want Oettinger back as soon as possible because who wouldn’t, they’re not a bunch of dummies out here, and 2) Nobody is saying the Stars don’t need Oettinger in the long term for this year to go well. Agreed? Great, let’s move on.
The single most encouraging thing about this team so far this year, in my estimation, is that they are actually scoring on a reasonable number of their chances. Unlike the previous three years, during which they, uh, didn’t.
Last year alone saw the Stars score a good 35 goals fewer than expected given the chances they generated. Whether that issue was systemic or localized to a couple of players, the fact is that this year’s Stars are actually scoring goals they should score, and isn’t that nice? As their dominant victory over Los Angeles on Tuesday reminded us, hockey is a lot more fun when the puck is going in the net. Scott Wedgewood gave up a couple of goals, sure, but unlike the afternoon calamity against New York last Saturday, the Stars were able to keep putting goals on the board, and the night finished with smiles all around.
The metrics harmonize nicely with the results, too. At 5v5, Dallas is solidly mid-pack in both expected and actual goals scored this season. That might not sound impressive, but I’d urge you to recall how Dallas was third-worst in the NHL last year in 5v5 goal-scoring, and to be grateful. This year has started off so very much better than the last one, both aesthetically and in the standings.
However, it’s not just the scoring. Pete DeBoer has done what so many of his predecessors could not: juice the goal-scoring without sacrificing the defense. At 5v5, these Dallas Stars are third in the NHL in goals allowed per game. That’s not all Oettinger, either; the team is also top-10 in expected goals allowed, a stat that tries to separate the quality of chances from the individual goaltender’s play and talent shot quality without the noise of goaltending play. A stingy defense is a surefire way to turn a league-average offense into a game-saving one, and that’s exactly what Dallas has enjoyed thus far
More than that, the goals Dallas has scored come from a number of sources. It’s noteworthy that the Stars’ six game-winners have been tallied by names like Tyler Seguin, Mason Marchment, and even Jani Hakanpää alongside top liners Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz. Yes, the Robertson-Hintz-Joe Pavelski line still carries this team a lot of nights, as all top lines should and do; that trio ranks first through third in points scored on the team. But Seguin, who seems rejuvenated in the early going, is one point behind Pavelski, while Marchment is a point behind Seguin. The top-liners may share the team goal lead at five apiece, but Marchment sits at four and Seguin shares joint third place with two unexpected names: teenager Wyatt Johnston and unheralded veteran Joel Kiviranta. For the first time in a long while, the Stars not only seem capable of getting the puck in the net when they need to, but capable of finding those goals from a variety of places.
But it’s one thing to score in a number of ways. It’s another to win in different ways. Yet here are the Stars, sitting third in power-play goals per 60 minutes despite a good bit of streakiness (they started the season 6-for-17, then slumped to 0-for-15, before converting 3 out of 4 on Tuesday). The penalty kill has been just as dominant, which is good because it’s had to be. As you may have heard on the Bally Sports Southwest broadcast the other night, Dallas and Los Angeles are the two most frequently penalized teams in the NHL. In spite of this, Dallas is sixth in the NHL in goals allowed per 60 minutes on the PK. The Stars are creating problems for themselves, but they’ve solved them with a flourish, too.
Here’s the rub: Oettinger has been far better on the PK thus far than backup Scott Wedgewood. That’s generally the case for top goalies relative to their backups, but it’s one of the most prominent areas that could take a hit during the 23-year-old’s absence. Even then, there are workarounds. One proven way to avoid giving up as many goals on the penalty kill–and I’ve researched this strategy extensively–is to kill fewer penalties. To wit: in the Stars’ six wins this season, they’ve taken an average of four penalties per game. They’ve been on the job more than five times a night in their four losses. This is probably not unrelated to the fact that, in their six wins this year, the Stars have only given up two power-play goals compared to five in their four losses. If there is a single key area for Oettinger’s teammates to focus on shoring up in his absence, reducing the number of shorthanded shots Wedgewood faces would be it.
Of course, the easiest way to compensate for Oettinger’s absence, however long it lasts, is for Wedgewood to do what Khudobin did in relief of Bishop and raise his game a half dozen or so notches. That probably isn’t happening over the long haul, but he has demonstrated his ability to be solidly average to above average over last season and the early days of this one. This shouldn’t be a Cooper Rush situation, in other words, where the Stars’ coaching staff must radically adjust its gameplan and Wedgewood’s teammates must play even better hockey to accommodate. Then again, there’s no reason why that couldn’t work in the short term if it had to, given the caliber of the team surrounding the netminder this year.
Last season ended with the solemn realization that the Stars were only in a position to steal the Calgary series because Jake Oettinger carried the team on his back. This year, the Stars can carry their goaltender, for a change. It’s not ideal, but thanks to a new coaching staff and fresh balance up and down the roster, it is possible for a little while. Like any good therapist will tell you, the key is to try to change only the things you can control. The rest of the Stars have a hefty dose of role-playing exercises awaiting them on the upcoming road trip.