When the Minnesota Golden Gophers skated off the ice in East Lansing following a two-game sweep of Michigan State this past weekend, nobody thought it would be the Minnesota goaltender’s final collegiate game.
Senior Jack LaFontaine was selected in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. Sunday, he signed a one-year, entry-level contract worth $750,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 at the minor league level, terminating LaFontaine’s college eligibility.
The move comes just one day after LaFontaine started both weekend games versus MSU, making 45 saves and allowing four goals across two games. While the situation involving the Gophers, LaFontaine and the NHL is an extremely rare one, Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole made his opinions clear that wants change to the rules that allow such plucking of players from college hockey.
“Yeah, it's not a good thing and it's not a good look,” Cole said on Monday. “It’s a weird thing with hockey and the way we are set up. That could happen at any time of the season. It could happen before your first game, it could happen before the NCAA Championship or like this.”
The harsh reality for Minnesota hockey Head Coach Bob Motzko is that LaFontaine is no ordinary player. The Gophers have always been stacked with NHL talent and LaFontaine is no different. LaFontaine went berserk last season going 22-7-0 with 1.79 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, good enough to earn him the Mike Richter Award for the nation’s top goalie.
“I don't feel bad for too many things for other teams, we're all going through injuries and losses and dealing with things, but this one I do for Coach Motzko and the team,” Cole said. “That's a tough thing to go through.”
In the utopian world of college hockey, Cole said he would like to see restrictions to midseason acquisitions by NHL teams. He is hopeful that a move like this to such a strong program can inspire conversations for change.
“Maybe it’s time that we look between the NCAA and college hockey and guys who have a good say in the NHL and have some kind of agreement,” Cole said. “We don’t even have a minor league. It’s not like you can go to your club team and pull a goalie in. Their classes have started. They can’t go out and bring a guy in halfway through either because you are past the point when you can really do that. And even if you do, you aren’t replacing that guy.”
LaFontaine’s first stint in college came at Michigan, where he played two seasons starting in 2016. He then left the program to play with the Penticton Vees of Canada’s BCHL before rejoining the Big Ten with the Golden Gophers for the 2019-20 season.
As for Michigan State, the team has four players on its current roster that have been drafted by an NHL team: junior forward Josh Nodler, senior defensemen Cole Krygier and Christian Krygier and senior forward Mitchell Mattson. In theory, any of those players could sign an NHL deal and forego college eligibility at any moment.
In this case, the Golden Gophers are a rare victim of the loophole created by the NHL and NCAA. Only time will tell if this will derail or have little effect on the No. 1 team in the Big Ten.
“But you know what I think? The guy they are going to have playing who is a pretty darn good goalie,” Cole said. “I've seen enough of him and he's not bad. They'll keep moving forward. They have no choice, right?”
One of LaFontaine’s last moments bearing the Minnesota sweater? A vicious, frightening collision with MSU junior forward Jagger Joshua that prompted an official’s review and minor charging penalty.
“The rumor going around town is that I scared him away from college hockey,” Joshua joked.
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