- Tabbed the top North American goalie prospect for the 2017 NHL draft, scouts and coaches alike rave about Jake Oettinger's mental game.
Jake Oettinger will be a pretty hard guy to miss at the NHL draft.
For one, the 6-foot-4 goalie is the top-ranked North American netminder who is almost assuredly going to be one of the first 31 picks on June 23 in Chicago. For another, he’s already got himself a standout sense of style.
"I'm really excited to get dressed up,” he says. "I have a blue check suit with a polka dot shirt with matching tie and pocket square and then I have little Minnesota logos on my socks, so I'll be representing home."
Whichever team selects the 18-year-old will get a goalie who's toolbox includes much more than sartorial know-how and size. There's also a glove hand often described as unbeatable to go with top-notch awareness and puck handling. He's a building block in the crease who has the skill and mental makeup scouts and coaches alike fawn over.
“His mind is beyond elite,” says Dave Rogalski, a goaltending coach with Impact Hockey who has been training Oettinger since he was in eighth grade. ”The kid does not get rattled. He's hard to defeat, he can handle the biggest or smallest of moments. He's a wise, young kid, I'll say that. He's as calm as ever, so whoever gets him is going to be very lucky as part of their system.”
At the moment, however, the goaltender is happy to be at Boston University, a few months removed from a freshman season that included a run to the second round of the NCAA tournament while compiling a 21-11-3 record, 2.11 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, all numbers that put him among the NCAA leaders.
Not bad for a true freshman who expected to compete with sophomore Max Prawdzik and junior Connor Lacouvee for playing time in his first season. Instead, Oettinger stood out in the early going, posting three wins with a pair of shutouts and a .947 save percentage in his first five games of the season.
"We weren't surprised at the season he had,” Terriers coach Dave Quinn says. “He's been a great goalie everywhere he's been, and I think he just made the next jump when he go to this level. You never can predict what a freshman's adjustment to college hockey will be, especially a goalie. Jake started separating himself early on in the competition and just grabbed the position.”
“I knew that I was capable through hard work,” Oettinger says, “and that was my plan coming into the season: be the hardest working guy and eventually earn the job. That happened a little quicker than maybe I thought. The reason I came here was to be the starter, and I definitely worked my way and earned it.”
It’s the latest in a long line of successes and realized dreams for the Lakeville native who started out as a defenseman, occasionally suiting up in goal before taking over the crease full-time when his team's goalie was called up to an older team. From there, he quickly became a stalwart, backstopping Lakeville North High School to the Minnesota State High School Hockey tournament as a freshman, an achievement he still calls a “dream come true.” From there, he was invited to the U.S. National Team Development Program, winning gold and bronze with the U18 team at the World Championships and backstopping the U20 to gold at the World Juniors in 2017.
Playing with the NTDP, he says, helped expose him to BU, where he fell in love with the school during a visit. Since setting foot on campus, he's stood out (“Kinda hard to miss a 6-foot-4 goalie,” Quinn says with a chuckle) with a solid all-around game.
“His technique is already pretty good and he's just so big and athletic and quick, and he's got good instincts for the position,” says Kirk Luedeke, a scout with Red Line Report. “I think he's the total package, I think he's a first round pick—I don't think he gets out of the first round, I'm not sure where he goes, probably later on, but any team that's looking for a goaltender is probably going to take that plunge, especially late in the first where you can afford to take that chance because I think he's going to be a nice payoff for whoever drafts him.”
While it would have been easy to buy into the hype surrounding him, Oettinger instead used it as an opportunity to learn. Thankfully, on a team stacked with high-end NHL draft picks and prospects like Clayton Keller, Kiefer Bellows, Doyle Somerby, Jordan Greenway, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Charlie McAvoy, there were plenty of guys around to show him the ropes.
“Seeing what it takes and seeing what they did every day to get to the next level was definitely something that I tried to learn from and soak in at every chance I could,” he says. “I think one of things all the guys harped on that were drafted and went through the whole process was control what you can control. You can't control where you're rated... the only thing you can control is your work ethic and your attitude and how you play and perform.“
In that regard, Oettinger’s body of work speaks for itself. Rogalski and Quinn note the goalie’s humble-yet-hungry demeanor, eager to put in the work in order to get his game to the next level and not getting swayed by all the noise.
“Sometimes, I have to remind him to slow down, because he has a laundry list of things he believes he wants to get better,” Rogalski says. “He's very humble, so it's easy for him to come to the rink and put the hard hat on and get to work.”
“This day in age, it's hard to find guys like that,” Quinn says. “If you're gonna be great, you'd better think you're great, but you better do it in a manner where you're not offending people, and he's got that inner self-confidence that allows him to be a great goalie.”
All those qualities were put on display on a big way during a first round NCAA tournament game against North Dakota, a matchup of collegiate NHL player factories in which the Fighting Hawks threw shot after shot at the red-and-white clad goalie, only to find themselves continually rebuffed.
In the middle of all of it, there was Oettinger, skating from crease to sideboards and back between whistles, resetting and keeping calm, cool and collected, a habit he picked up while watching Brian Elliott during a Minnesota Wild game in his younger days.
After almost 92 minutes of high-intensity hockey—and 56 saves by a goalie with ice water in his veins in a win-or-go-home situation—McAvoy mercifully scored to give BU the 4-3 win.
“You really want to look at what you're in for, watch film on that game,” Luedeke says. “North Dakota outplayed BU by a wide margin and yet, the Terriers won because their goaltender was the difference and that's what teams are looking for: They want a game changer and a difference maker, and I think Oettinger is the guy.”
It was a can't-miss performance from a hard-to-miss guy. While BU’s season came to an end the following game at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth in another overtime nailbiter, Oettinger fittingly saw things from another angle: “We were one shot from going to the Frozen Four.”
It's another source of motivation for the tall goalie who plans to return to school and ready to shoulder a bigger load on a team hit hard by graduation and early pro defections. There's still trophies to be won and titles to be competed for. At the moment, though, he's content to sit back, relax and watch the play develop when draft day rolls around.
After all, it’s in his nature.
“You just have to go into the draft with no real expectations and whoever calls your name, just be really excited and humbled,” he says. “I know I will be.”