As the Stars were preparing for the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, there were a lot of question marks.
With Ben Bishop out because of knee surgery, there was hope that rookie Jake Oettinger could back up No. 1 goalie Anton Khudobin and maybe play a quarter of the games.
And with Tyler Seguin out because of hip surgery, there was an opening in the top six that maybe, just maybe, could be grabbed by rookie Jason Robertson.
Fast forward to the season finale Monday night in Chicago and the two rookies were key players in a 5-4 overtime victory. Oettinger stopped all five shots he saw in the extra frame to take his 11th win of the season, and Robertson won it with his 17th goal of the year. It was a nice reminder that there were some good things in an otherwise challenging campaign.
Video: DAL@CHI: Robertson sweeps up rebound for OT winner
"From where we were in January to where we are today, it was an incredible improvement for both of them," Stars coach Rick Bowness said. "They're the future of this franchise and it's good to see them come in under pressure situations and come up big again."
Robertson will obviously get the biggest accolades. He's had the best rookie season of any Stars player since the team moved to Texas in 1993 and he's in the mix for the Calder Trophy, given to the league's rookie of the year. Robertson tallied 45 points and is second in rookie scoring to Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov (51 points). He also finished second to Joe Pavelski on the Stars' leading scorer chart.
Video: TBL@DAL: Robertson buries a feed from Pavelski
Oettinger said he's been impressed with Robertson since he came in last season and tallied 47 points (25 goals, 22 assists) in 60 games with the Texas Stars.
"We came in together last year and I saw what he could do in the AHL, and I knew he was going to be a great player in this league," Oettinger said. "For him to come out and show that, I'm really happy for him. He's going to be a huge part of this organization for a long time. He deserves all the attention he's getting. I think he's the best rookie in the NHL this season and I hope he gets rewarded with the Calder Trophy. I think he deserves it."
Video: Oettinger on the win: 'It was a crazy game'
Both Robertson and Oettinger followed up their AHL seasons with a trip to the playoff bubble in Edmonton. Robertson didn't play, and Oettinger played only sparingly, but both drew experience and motivation from the run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Robertson used the offseason to drop weight, increase his speed and get stronger. And while he was a healthy scratch early in the season, he saw that work pay off when he quickly gained confidence in February and March.
"There were a lot of ups and downs," Robertson said. "All the coaching staff and all the players here kind of guided my game to be a top-six player. It was a great year for me, I learned a lot and got more comfortable as the year went on. But I have a lot more things I can work on and improve on, so I look forward to that."
Video: 'It's nice to finish the season with a win'
Oettinger played in 29 of the team's 56 games and finished 11-8-7 with 2.36 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He said he too was aided by the veterans on the team and goalie coach Jeff Reese.
"I've had a ton of help from especially Jeff Reese, the work he has done with me and the effort and the time he's put into me has just been unbelievable," Oettinger said. "To be a young goalie and to have somebody who really believes in you and truly wants you to succeed and wants to help you in every aspect is just so big for me. I had so much fun working with him this year. And then to have two world-class goalies in Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop to be around and to learn from. Even the older guys who aren't goalies, I was surrounded by such a great group of guys and support staff, and they really set me up for success. It's just a dream come true."
Video: CBJ@DAL: Oettinger lifts Stars with first NHL shutout
That dream was manifested in several key situations this season, like Monday's overtime. Oettinger had struggled during the game and was down 4-2 in the third period when his teammates tallied two quick goals to tie things up. That forced overtime, where the Stars had to kill a double minor for high-sticking. Esa Lindell and Andrej Sekera each had big blocks on the penalty kill, but Oettinger also had to make some huge saves, including a big stop on a hard shot from Chicago All-Star Patrick Kane.
"It's a dream come true every second out there," Oettinger said. "To play against the best, that's what I want to do. I want to test myself against the best players in the world, and obviously he's one of the best players in the league, a Hall-of-Famer. So, to be able test my skill against his is what I love doing. It's a nice measuring stick, so you've got to kind of pinch yourself when you're out there against guys you watched your entire childhood."
Video: TBL@DAL: Oettinger robs Palat in front with paddle
Robertson had the benefit of playing beside an All-Star in Pavelski. The two combined with Roope Hintz to finish 1, 2, 3 in scoring on the Stars and form a line that was very dangerous and downright fun to watch.
Pavelski said he expects Robertson and Oettinger to get even better through hard work in the summer.
"The confidence of what you did this year takes you into the summer just wanting more," Pavelski said. "I think you're excited to go train afterward. They both work hard. You can tell they love the game and want to learn. Those things go a long way, especially with teammates. Honest efforts out of those guys every night. I think everything they got, they deserved and they earned. They've got to take another step now."
Which is the next challenge. Each player came in with limited expectations before this season. They'll enter next year as key players on a team that wants to win big.
"I worked really hard," Robertson said. "Last summer was a good step in trying to get into the NHL. But this coming summer, being an actual NHL pro, I'm just going to keep taking it to the next level and take the next step because now I know what I need to work on and improve upon."
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.