Jake Oettinger had to earn his way into being a goalie. The hard work could pay off with his name being called early at the 2017 NHL Draft.
Oettinger, a freshman at Boston University, earned a B rating from NHL Central Scouting in its preliminary players to watch list. But his goaltending debut didn't come until he was 10 years old. Prior to that he was a defenseman, though he played the position with a goaltender's mentality.
"Sometimes I'd get caught trying to block too many shots or stuff like that when I was playing defense," said Oettinger, 17. "When I was playing defense, I definitely had a soft spot for the goalies and tried to help them out as much as I could."
Oettinger's parents were resistant to his playing goal.
"My parents made it a big stressing point that I should learn how to skate before I play goalie," he said. "And then the goalie on our team got called up to play for the older guys, so I just filled in for him."
Oettinger said his experience as a skater has given him a different perspective on being a goaltender, including how his defensemen like to get the puck to start breakouts.
"I definitely have a feel for what it's like to be a defenseman and have the goalie play the puck to you," he said. "For me nowadays, I try to get the puck off my stick as quickly as I can and let the defenseman break the puck out. … It's their job to get the puck out of the zone. I've just got to stop the puck."
His philosophy has worked so far. In five games as a freshman at Boston University, he's 3-2-0 with a 1.42 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and two shutouts.
"He's an unbelievable kid," coach David Quinn said. "He's one heck of a goalie. I love his desire. He's got an incredible desire to be the best goalie he can be. … His attention to detail is unbelievable. He's always looking to get better. His composure, his demeanor, it's already pro-like."
Oettinger showed up on Quinn's radar during his two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.
"I went out to watch the Four Nations Tournament in Ann Arbor [Michigan] during his under-17 year (2014-15), and in a game against Russia they were splitting the goaltending that night and he happened to be the second goalie," Quinn said. "He comes in halfway through the second period and in the first minute made three unbelievable saves. I thought to myself, not only is he physically impressive, but that's mentally impressive. To be able to come off the bench and step in right away and be that prepared, that ready spoke volumes where he was mentally and how far along he was from a focus standpoint and a maturity standpoint."
When Oettinger arrived at Boston University, he knew he would be competing for playing time against two older goaltenders, junior Connor LaCouvee and sophomore Max Prawdzik. But Oettinger played well enough to start all five games this season.
"It's a nice situation to have as a staff," Quinn said. "I think they all push each other. They've all got great relationships. [Oettinger] seems to be right now a little bit ahead of everybody else from a production standpoint."
To add to his on-ice skill, Oettinger is a proponent of pregame visualization.
"I try to just visualize every simple shot," he said. "I try to visualize simple shots from the outside and see myself tracking the puck all the way through. When I get on the ice I can tell the difference because I've already put my mind through that sequence. I can definitely tell that it makes it easier and you can see the puck better."
He started the season seeing it well at USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp in Plymouth, Michigan, in August. The camp was the first step in picking the team that will play for the United States at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. Oettinger was the youngest of the four goaltenders in camp and went 0-1-0 in three games, but had a 1.96 GAA and .934 save percentage. He also played well at the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, making 12 saves on 14 shots in 30:28 of ice time.
"There's a lot to like about his game," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "He's a big goalie (6-foot-4, 212 pounds). Covers a lot of the net. His positional play is very good. Got a phenomenal butterfly, great rebound control. He's got that NHL net presence when you look at him."
The World Junior Championship and the draft are things for Oettinger to look toward, but Quinn trusts his goaltender has his focus in the right place.
"He's got a great grasp of it," Quinn said. "We're constantly talking to our players, regardless of who they are and what the situation is. You just want them all to be in a good spot mentally and do what you can to help them if there's any challenges. But he's a guy that's a low-maintenance guy."