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Jack LaFontaine Joins Hurricanes at an Interesting Time

It's rare that a top college player leaves school mid-season to join an NHL team. But the Carolina Hurricanes are in an interesting situation, and the time was right for the NCAA's reigning top goalie, Jack LaFontaine, to make the jump to the NHL.
Jack Lafontaine

Top college goalies leaving school midway through a season is rare. But Jack LaFontaine is not your average collegiate star, and the Carolina Hurricanes are kind of in a desperate situation.

As it stands, Antti Raanta is out with an upper-body injury and AHL goaltenders Eetu Makeniemi and Beck Warm are both hurt, too. Alex Lyon was called up on an emergency basis and held his own in an overtime loss against Florida on Sunday, with the only other signed goaltender, Pyotr Kochetkov, playing in the KHL.

So, something had to give, and that led to the Hurricanes taking LaFontaine out of school in his senior year to join the Hurricanes this year. It's far from ideal, but LaFontaine is someone the Hurricanes risked losing had they not signed him later this spring. LaFontaine was drawing interest around the NHL, and would have almost certainly been picked up elsewhere. 

LaFontaine won the NCAA's Mike Richter Award as the league's top goaltender last year with a 22-7-0 record, five shutouts, a 1.79 GAA and a .934 SP. LaFontaine won nearly everything imaginable last year, taking the Big 10 championship, winning the playoff MVP title, the league's top goalie award and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist as the top collegiate player, period.

Many thought he'd go pro instead of a rare fifth year of college, but he came to serve as captain for the University of Minnesota in 2021-22 before ultimately signing his first NHL deal. Speaking of his five years in the NCAA, his route to this point was rather unusual. He was a star prospect in the top Ontario-based Jr. A hockey league, the OJHL, in 2014-15 before spending a year with the NAHL's Janesville Jets. He then spent two years with the University of Michigan before electing to go back to Junior A, spending a year with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL. 

It was a calculated risk: already a Hurricanes prospect after getting selected 75th overall in 2016, LaFontaine needed more starts if he was going to be viewed as a top prospect for the future. His time in Penticton was glorious, posting a 30-13-1 record to win the league's top goalie honors. Minnesota offered him a spot in August of 2019, shortly before the season was set to begin – only to emerge as one of the NCAA's top goaltenders over the next three years.

LaFontaine's whole deal came together quickly. After GM Don Wadell had a chat with development coach Jason Muzzatti about the team's netminding situation, LaFontaine was offered an NHL deal Sunday morning and officially signed it later in the day. 

"These opportunities don't come along very often,' LaFontaine said. "Talking with management, and talking with others, I knew in my heart of hearts that it was the time to make the move." 

LaFontaine will head to Carolina on Tuesday while waiting on a work visa as a Canadian citizen. The hope is for LaFontaine to start practicing with the team on Wednesday, with immediate plans for the goaltender to come in the following days.

"It's an interesting scenario," LaFontaine said about leaving school mid-season, something that hasn't been seen by a high-profile Gopher since Kyle Okposo in 2007-08. "It's been an emotional roller coaster, I've obviously worked my entire life for this opportunity. Minnesota is a place where I grew as an individual. I grew my game as a hockey player and it was difficult to say bye."

Since LaFontaine's deal is for just a single year, LaFontaine will become won't have to deal with being on a longer three-year entry-level contract. Instead, he'll simply be an RFA come summertime and depending on where Carolina sees its goaltending situation, they could look to lock him in as a potential backup. Frederik Andersen is the No. 1 in Carolina, but the team moved Alex Nedeljkovic, who appeared to be a long-term option in net, during the off-season. That paves way for someone like LaFontaine to secure a more permanent job.

"He's got a good frame and the athleticism to go with it," a scout said. "He's got a good head atop his shoulders. Doesn't let bad goals tear him down. He's a battler that never gives up on a play."

What happens the rest of the season for Lafontaine is yet to be determined. When everyone's healthy, where does he fit into the equation? With the NHL permitting taxi squads again, the Hurricanes will likely finish the year carrying three goalies, and keeping LaFontaine with the club to practice on a daily basis could be beneficial for the 24-year-old.

Nonetheless, the whole situation is an interesting one. Let's see where it goes from here.

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