LaFontaine learning pro game in crash course with Wolves

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Jack LaFontaine had a life-changing decision to make, and 24 hours to do so.

Stay at the University of Minnesota, serve as a captain for that team, and wrap up a standout collegiate career? Or take an entry-level offer from the Carolina Hurricanes to turn pro? The National Hockey League beckoned.

Injuries to goaltenders Antti Raanta and Eetu Makiniemi had dangerously depleted Carolina’s organizational depth, both at the NHL level and with the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. Carolina had Frederik Andersen and Alex Lyon to handle goaltending duties, but more help would be needed.

So the Hurricanes made an offer to the 24-year-old LaFontaine, their third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

“It was extremely difficult,” LaFontaine admitted. “Minnesota was a place I called home for two-and-a-half years. It was a decision that came in under 24 hours, given the circumstances where the depth chart was for Carolina and Chicago. So there was a grand opportunity for me, one that was hard to pass up. Obviously there was a lot of emotion going into it, but looking at it from a hockey standpoint, it made the most sense.”

LaFontaine had backstopped Minnesota to a two-game sweep at Michigan State on Friday and Saturday nights. By Monday morning, he had made the leap from the NCAA to the NHL, signing a one-year deal with the Hurricanes on Jan. 10, 2022. LaFontaine ended up seeing time in a pair of games with Carolina before heading to the Wolves on Jan. 24.

“I was completely blindsided,” LaFontaine said of the offer. “There was no planning for that. I don’t think anyone’s plan is to leave halfway through the [season], so it definitely caught me off guard, and it was a quick lifestyle change.”

LaFontaine’s AHL debut came Jan. 26, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Texas Stars. Three nights later, he earned his first pro shutout ― if not a win ― in a 1-0 shootout defeat to the Rockford IceHogs.

Hopes are high for the 6-foot-3, 199-pound LaFontaine, who won the Mike Richter Award last season as the top NCAA’s goaltender after finishing 22-7-0 with a 1.79 goals-against average, .934 save percentage, and seven shutouts. His end-of-season haul also included being named Big Ten Goaltender of the Year, Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and First-Team All-American, plus a top-10 finish in Hobey Baker Award voting as college hockey’s top player.

LaFontaine has a prime objective with the Wolves, a major step up from the college game.

“[I am] making sure that every day I’m getting purpose out of what I’m doing, so I’m doing everything I need to be doing as a rookie and trying to find ways to evolve as a goalie,” LaFontaine said.

“College is different from pro, so when I say ‘find a purpose,’ it’s about being detail-oriented, finding new ways to refine my technique, making sure I’m acclimatized to the speed. Junior hockey and college bring [their] own adversity, so for me it’s about finding a way to manage myself on a daily basis and keep on progressing.”

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

While the Wolves had once found themselves pressed for goaltending, now they have an overflow of talent in net, even with Makiniemi still sidelined. Lyon, who continues to shuttle between Chicago and Carolina, leads the AHL with a 2.14 GAA in 23 appearances. And Pyotr Kochetkov, a standout prospect in his own right (a second-round pick by the Hurricanes in the 2019 NHL Draft), is 3-0-0 with a 2.36 GAA and .929 save percentage in his first three starts with the Wolves.

So for now, at least, it will be a LaFontaine-Kochetkov tandem for head coach Ryan Warsofsky. But while both are competing for futures with the Hurricanes, that stops off the ice. With Kochetkov’s recent arrival from Russia, LaFontaine has helped him with car rides to handle immigration paperwork and other housekeeping issues. LaFontaine also says that he is handling the off-ice adjustments that come with pro life: playing in the AHL now means being able to concentrate solely on hockey.

“You’re on your own,” LaFontaine said. “I’m very independent, very mature, so I don’t really have an issue with [being on my own]. I’m fully invested in hockey right now, and that’s the way I like it.”

Sunday’s come-from-behind 5-3 win against the visiting Iowa Wild pushed the Wolves’ record to 33-10-4-4 (.725), third-best in the AHL and comfortably atop the Central Division. LaFontaine took his turn in net and provided 25 stops; he has yet to lose in regulation with Chicago, showing a record of 2-0-4 with a 2.48 GAA and an .887 save percentage in eight appearances.

Beginning this week, the Wolves will play 25 games over the final 53 days of the season, providing LaFontaine and the club with plenty of game work.

“College is your weekend games, and sometimes it gets a little stale,” LaFontaine acknowledged. “Not as much playing as you’d like… for me I love playing.”

Two months into his pro career, LaFontaine remains comfortable with his decision.

“The ball was in my court,” LaFontaine recounted. “I sat down with people close to me ― my mom, my dad, my advisors. At the end of the day, I’m the person who had to make a decision, so I went with my gut on it, and I still feel really good about it.

“I’m just fortunate to be a pro hockey player.”