Mental toughness key to success for Oettinger

Photo: Andy Nietupski

by Stephen Meserve AHL On The Beat

Over the past several years, there has been much digital ink spilled on the topic of “flow” – the concept of reaching peak performance by being fully immersed in an activity. If you’ve ever been there, you know the feeling. The rest of the world melts away and all that you can see is the task at hand.

Texas Stars goalie coach Jim Bedard can relate to the concept: “I’ll ask a lot of goalies I work with, even younger kids, ‘What were you thinking when you played some of your best games?’

“Almost to a person, they say, ‘nothing.’ They weren’t thinking of anything. They were just reacting and focused. The clock didn’t exist.”

Getting there consistently is the career-long challenge of being a professional goaltender. For Texas rookie Jake Oettinger, it’s a journey he is just beginning.

A 2017 first-round pick by Dallas, the Boston University product got a taste of the AHL last season, finishing out the 2018-19 campaign with the Texas Stars. Bedard notes that it was clear from the beginning that Oettinger had all of the physical tools to play the pro game.

“The Dallas Stars do a lot to prepare these guys to be future pros and future Dallas Stars,” said Bedard. “Obviously, Jake ate it right up and came out [of the summer] in great shape.”

The key aspect that Oettinger and all goalies need to develop in the AHL is the mental side of the game. The entire team had a stretch that challenged them professionally as the club suffered a franchise-worst 12-game winless streak early in the season. Oettinger himself was in the midst of an 0-4-1 run and didn’t get a start for two weeks even as Texas made a turnaround and broke their skid.

On Dec. 3, with Milwaukee and its 13-game winning streak coming to town, Oettinger got the call. He stopped 39 of 40. Postgame, he commented, “Through the season you go through ups and downs and obviously it’s my first year pro so I’m learning a lot. If you’re not at your best, you’re not going to win, and they’re going to find someone who will.”

Since that 5-1 win, Oettinger is 9-6-0 and rotating starts consistently with the relatively veteran Landon Bow. Part of breaking that slump was the practice effort from the rookie.

Photo: Andy Nietupski

“The thing you can control is how hard you work every day,” said Bedard. “It takes the bumps out of the road to have an extremely high work ethic. When things aren’t going well, we work harder. I’ll find drills that are more specific to the grind that we’re in. Work more on positioning so the pucks are going to hit ’em.

“Players get their first contract, and they have to earn their second one. Nothing is given, and it’s just part of being a pro learning how to work every single day. It’s not a lot of fun getting those pucks shot at you every single day.”

Oettinger has all the pieces to be an NHL goalie, but he’s got to polish off his game in the AHL for possibly a few more seasons. Bedard notes he’s a very coachable player and has taken to the adjustments in his game well. His agility, recovery and lateral movement all get high marks, and puckhandling continues to mature.

“We work on that every practice with ring-ins and dump-ins, practicing placements and quick-ups. That’s one thing that’s come a long way.”

Some small refinements are still needed though.

“In college, he had a tendency to overslide a bit and get himself out of position,” Bedard continued. “He had to make a longer extension to make the second save. Now he’s a lot more efficient when he pushes and slides.”

What does success look like for Oettinger in the second half? Bedard is aiming for 12 starts out of the remaining 26 games.

“Coach (Stars head coach Neil Graham) doesn’t give any player ice time just because. You have to earn your ice time.”

Ideally for Oettinger’s development, that also includes some playoff starts, but it’s a bit early for that.

Texas Stars general manager Scott White sees a bright future ahead but says all up to the young keeper. “He’s gonna play [in the NHL] in my opinion. It’s gonna be up to him in terms of how long before he plays there. Really, the ball’s in his court.”

Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.