|Jake Oettinger (Credit: Taylor Sammarco/Texas Stars)|
For the first time in a while, the Texas Stars have a highly-drafted, blue chip prospect in their goalie tandem. Rookie Jake Oettinger was Dallas’s other first round pick in 2017, coming off the board at 26th overall and 23 picks behind Miro Heiskanen. After the draft, he returned to Boston University for two more years and now is ready to begin his professional career in Cedar Park among a sea of other young players coming into the league with Texas this season.
“Being able to get the real stuff going is exciting,” Oettinger told 100 Degree Hockey when reached by phone late last week. “There’s a lot of fresh faces, a lot of young guys who are in the same situation that I am. It’s nice to be able to be going through the same stuff as these guys at the same time.”
Everyone’s life changes significantly when they transition from college to the “real world,” and professional athletes are no different. Just before our interview, Oettinger was doing the exact same thing as any of the rest of us would be after moving to a new city: a trip to the furniture store to buy a new bed frame.
“This last week has been pretty hectic, a lot of logistical stuff. I have a lease signed and a place that I can call home and cook home-cooked meals, which I think is going to be huge for me. I’m just excited to be 100% moved in and form our team and habits.”
Oettinger is rooming with another college product, Rhett Gardner. According to Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop, who was also a college goalie before going pro, players who went that route have a leg up in starting their careers thanks to the more mundane off-ice skills required to be a collegiate athlete.
“I definitely saw that too when I was in the minors,” Bishop told 100 Degree Hockey earlier this summer. “The guys that went to college were generally a little bit more mature off the ice as far as living on their own. I don’t think that’s really an issue [for them].”
Oettinger agreed, “I think the biggest changes are off the ice. In the pro ranks, you’re expected to be a professional. You’re not a kid anymore. Just the freedom and the responsibility that you have outside the rink is so much more.”
The other piece of the puzzle for the college athlete transition is the schedule of games. Oettinger played in 38 games last year, and the university game calendar is very spread out. Texas might have a spread out October, but the team will still fit in 76 games before April.
“In college, it’s like every weekend is a playoff game,” continued Oettinger. “Here, there’s going to be times where it becomes a grind. Those late January, February games are obviously going to be tough. It’s just important to go one game at a time and enjoy every day.”
Bishop put a little finer point on the matter, “The biggest difference for me [is] being consistent throughout such a long year. [In college,] everybody is rested from the whole week off and you’re playing two games a weekend and everybody is going 110% where, especially when you’re in the minors playing 3-in-3 and that third game, you know…
“In pro, there’s some nights where it’s going to be tougher than others. It’s just more about learning your team on and off the ice and learning the game and that schedule because it’s a lot different than college.”
Oettinger’s transition from college got a kickstart at the end of last season as he made his way into six games on an amateur tryout contract in the AHL. His first start this season was a 5-3 loss to Manitoba last weekend, but a hard week of practice and a goalie tandem with Landon Bow where both are pushing each other for the top spot will give a good chance for positive result in Iowa this weekend.
“It’s going to be a healthy competition that’s only going to make the team better,” said Oettinger of the young tandem. “I have the play my best because if I’m not, I know Bowsy will jump in there. We’re teammates on the same team. We just want to win, so I want to support him and do everything to help him win.”
Oettinger is already hard at work with Texas Stars goalie coach Jim Bedard to improve his game. While he was a first round pick, it’s helpful to note that goalie development is a mixed bag. Some can come right out of juniors and win a Cup but most take a longer path to the NHL.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be a finished product,” says Oettinger of his growth mindset. “There’s little things I need to tweak, little things I’ve been focusing on in practice. I just want to play as many games as I can and get as much experience as I can. There will be ups and downs and that comes with the position. I’m just trying to soak everything in this year and prove that I can make the next step.”