WINNIPEG – Even Wild coach Mike Yeo says he doesn’t know how much more Justin Fontaine can prove in the minors.
Fontaine, who won an NCAA title on the Xcel Energy Center ice with Minnesota Duluth in 2011, signed a free-agent contract with the Wild after that senior season.
In two years in Houston of the AHL, Fontaine finished second and first in scoring. On Nov. 6, he will turn 26 — not exactly a young pup by prospect standards.
Fontaine came close to being called up a few times last season, but yet here we are, Fontaine entering his third year as a pro, and he has yet to make his NHL debut.
“At times it was frustrating seeing guys go up and down and you know you’re playing very well in the minors,” Fontaine said. “But you can’t worry about that. I learned that. You just stay focused until you get your chance, and then take that opportunity.”
Yeo is trying to do everything possible to put Fontaine in a position to succeed in preseason games.
In Tuesday’s opener against Columbus, Fontaine skated with top-liners Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund until Zucker left the game in the second period with a groin injury. Fontaine was minus-2, but Yeo was impressed with how he put himself in position to score (robbed twice) and exited the defensive zone to trigger transitions.
Thursday against the Jets, he skated with veteran goal-scorer Dany Heatley and top prospect Charlie Coyle. The winger even played the power-play point. Yeo was looking for faster decision-making from Fontaine because in the NHL opposed to the AHL, “You don’t take that first option, all of sudden you run out of all options.”
“I’m ready to take the next step,” Fontaine said. “I put a lot of work in this last year and learned a lot playing in the minors, getting to develop and put in every situation. This camp is big for me to instill confidence in the coaching staff and show them what I can provide.”
Fontaine hails from Bonnyville, Alberta, about 2½ hours northeast of Edmonton. He chose Duluth because he felt he could step right in as a freshman.
He did and eventually developed impressive chemistry with Jack and Mike Connolly. Fontaine was second on the Bulldogs in scoring his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, finishing third in the WCHA in 2011 with 58 points.
Each offseason, Fontaine returns home for six weeks before returning to Apple Valley, where he works out using the ARP Wave (Accelerated Recovery Performance). Former NHL defenseman Bret Hedican and former Wild center Matt Cullen swear by it.
“It prepares your muscles for the wear and tear, and helps strengthen and stretch them so you feel a lot looser on the ice,” Fontaine said.
For Fontaine to make the Wild out of camp, it may have to come in a checking or fourth-line role because Zucker, Granlund, Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are all battling for top-nine spots.
Fontaine said he would be up for that, saying in Houston, “I played a checker-mentality role, matching lines the whole season against the other team’s top line every single shift pretty much every game. I learned how to make reads and stay above the puck.”
Yeo said: “For a guy like [Fontaine], maybe you do a great job and earn yourself a position in camp or maybe the next-best scenario is two weeks, three weeks into the season, you want to make sure you prove that if it’s an injury to the [first through fourth lines], you’re the guy to get called up.
“It’s an important audition for him.”