The Carolina Hurricanes made a somewhat unusual, but quite necessary roster move Sunday afternoon, signing 2016 third-round draft pick Jack LaFontaine to an entry-level contract.
For LaFontaine, the deal ends his career at the University of Minnesota mid-season, a campaign in which he was 12-8-0 with a 2.69 GAA and .900 SV% for the Golden Gophers. LaFontaine won the Mike Richter Award in 2020-21, given to the NCAA’s top goaltender, after going 22-7-0 with a 1.79 GAA and .934 SV% while leading Minnesota to the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But now LaFontaine’s career moves on to its next phase, as he’ll join a Hurricanes’ organization suddenly in desperate need of some healthy goaltending depth.
“It came down to the opportunity at hand,” LaFontaine said. “I think the opportunity is very golden. I think the timing was right. Obviously it was a difficult decision to leave my teammates at Minnesota. I did talk to them, and they all respected it and were excited for myself. These opportunities don’t come along very often. Talking with management and others, I knew in my heart of hearts that it was time to make the next move.”
The addition of LaFontaine to the organization was a needed one for the Hurricanes, as the goaltending situation for Carolina has gotten shaky over the past few days.
NHL backup Antti Raanta was scratched from Saturday’s game with an injury general manager Don Waddell said he didn’t expect to be a long-term injury, but also didn’t expect to be better in the next few days.
Organizationally, both Eetu Makiniemi and Beck Warm suffered injuries for the Chicago Wolves that could have them sidelined for longer.
“Through the organization we have two healthy goalies, with Jack we’ll have three,” Waddell said. “We think we’re a serious contender. The last thing you want to do is get caught short in goal. A goalie is one thing, through all my years, that you need to have to win hockey games. We thought it was important for us to take this opportunity.
“We all felt that he was ready for this next step. If a guy was not ready, it wouldn’t be the smartest decision. But we all feel like he is ready to take that next step.”
LaFontaine will travel to Raleigh Tuesday, and he’ll be available to start practicing with the team Wednesday. He was added to the team’s Taxi Squad Monday.
For LaFontaine, it was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up on after giving years of hard work to Minnesota. It’s a lifetime goal closer to being achieved, and one that he’s ready for.
“This opportunity is special in the sense that I’ve been working toward the goal of playing in the NHL since about the age of 7,” LaFontaine said. “All my actions, all my sacrifices, all my work have been to the common goal of playing in the NHL. I just got a ticket to the dance. Now it’s really time to work even harder, do what I know how to do and help this team in any sort of way that I can.”
The hard work and determination for LaFontaine have taken him to quite a few places. He started his collegiate career at Michigan, where he went just 5-11-1, before spending a very, very strong season in the BCHL.
He made his way to Minnesota, where he has found his footing and groove for the last two and a half years. For LaFontaine, that journey has made him the goalie that he is today.
“With goalies, the paradox is that the more you get beat down the stronger you get,” LaFontaine said. “I’ve had a lot of arduous moments in my career. For me, they’ve just made me stronger. As a human being, as more of a holistic goalie mentally and emotionally, I feel like I’ve made some great strides. I was drafted as an 18-year old, and here I sit six years later as a 24-year old more mature, more understanding of the demands of the position. I think that’s all you can ask of your goaltender, to understand the demands mentally and emotionally.”
LaFontaine’s entry into the professional ranks is a unique one. He’s the first Minnesota player to leave mid-season since Kyle Okposo did so in 2008, and he’ll be immediately thrown into action either at the AHL or NHL level with the organizational injuries.
And as he makes that transition in his career, LaFontaine is leaning on something he says he’s always had, no matter the place in his career: the belief in himself to get it done.
“I’ve always had self belief,” LaFontaine said. “Same sort of thing with the decision I just made. Every decision you make, you have to be 100 percent bought in. I have the utmost confidence in myself. My work ethic speaks for itself. I’m a hard worker. I’m a competitor. For that reason, I’ve never had doubt in my abilities as a goalie.”