Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine signs with Carolina
LaFontaine has started 58 of the Gophers' last 60 games over the past two-plus seasons.
MINNEAPOLIS -- On Saturday, all the Minnesota Gophers' troubles seemed so far away.
On Saturday night at Michigan State, they mounted a rousing comeback from two goals down, put 60 shots on the Spartans net, got 21 saves from their every night starting goalie, got their first sweep since October and moved atop the Big Ten standings.
On Sunday night, everything changed, with the stroke of a pen.
Jack LaFontaine, who has started 58 of the Gophers' last 60 games over the past two-plus seasons, signed an NHL contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, Jan. 9, forgoing his final few months of college eligibility. He has signed a one-year, entry-level contract that will be worth $750,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 at the AHL level through the end of the 2021-22 season. LaFontaine will receive a signing bonus of $88,500.
"As the reigning Mike Richter Award recipient, Jack has proven he's ready to take the next steps in his career," Carolina president and general manager Don Waddell said in a news release. "We love his athleticism and consistency and can't wait for him to start his professional career."
This season, LaFontaine was 12-8 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .900 save percentage in 20 starts. Last season, he won the Mike Richter Award as college hockey's best goalie after going 22-7 with a 1.79 GAA, .934 save percentage and five shutouts.
"We're happy for him. He's got an opportunity in Carolina, so we pretty much wish him all the best luck on his next step," said Ben Meyers, one of the Gophers' three captains, along with LaFontaine and Sammy Walker. "I did see him today and wished him good luck. I'm sure we'll see him soon, and I just told him I love him."
For the Gophers, it leaves the goaltending primarily in the hands of junior Justen Close, who has played in six games over the course of his three seasons at Minnesota. Close was the named MVP of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League following the 2018-19 season when he went 25-11-4 for the Kindersley Klippers, posting a .928 saves percentage and a 2.19 goals-against average.
"He's been unbelievable from day one when he stepped on campus," Meyers said of the transition to Close. "Everybody on this team absolutely loves that guy. He's been a great goalie for us in practice, he hasn't gotten a lot of shots in games, but everybody is so excited for him and I think he's going to be a great player for us."
Close started both Gophers exhibition games last week and earned wins versus St. Thomas and the USA Hockey National U18 Team.
LaFontaine, who turned 24 last week, is a third-round pick of the Hurricanes, who took him with the 75th overall selection in the 2016 NHL Entry Level Draft. LaFontaine is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound, 24-year-old from Mississauga, Ontario. He began his career with the University of Michigan in 2016. After two seasons with the Wolverines, he went back to junior hockey and played the 2018-19 season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League.
"We would like to thank Jack for his contributions to the Gophers program, and we wish him well as he begins his professional career,” Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko said in a statement.
The signing came after the Hurricanes suffered a rash of injuries in their goalie room for both their NHL and AHL rosters. Antti Ranta missed Saturday's game for Carolina with an upper-body injury, meaning that Baudette, Minn., native Alex Lyon got the start in goal after a call-up from the taxi squad. For the Hurricanes' AHL team, two other goalies are injured currently.
He joined the Gophers in 2019 and played 74 games with the team. LaFontaine was named college hockey's top goalie last season after backstopping the Gophers Big Ten Tournament title and going 22-7-0 with a .934 saves percentage and a 1.79 goals against.
For the Gophers, it is their most notable in-season loss of a player since forward Kyle Okposo signed with the NHL's New York Islanders during the holiday break in the 2007-08 campaign, when he was a sophomore.