Suddenly, the Gophers men's hockey team no longer has the services of one of college hockey's best goaltenders.
In a stunning move, fifth-year senior Jack LaFontaine on Sunday signed a one-year entry-level contract with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, ending his Gophers career a day after he backstopped Minnesota to a series sweep at Michigan State.
LaFontaine, the reigning Mike Richter Award winner as the nation's top goalie, has started all 20 games for the Gophers this season, posting a 12-8 record with a 2.69 goals-against average and .900 save percentage with one shutout. Last season, he went 22-7-0 with a 1.79 GAA, a .934 save percentage and five shutouts in 29 games on his way to earning first-team All-America honors.
The Hurricanes this summer negotiated with LaFontaine, who chose to return to Minnesota for a fifth season that was available because of the NCAA's COVID-19 waiver. Carolina has dealt with several injuries at goalie throughout its organization, and LaFontaine, a 2016 third-round draft pick, will help fill in behind Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, who was a late scratch for the Hurricanes on Saturday. Goalies Eetu Makeniemi and Beck Warm of the Chicago Wolves, Carolina's AHL affiliate, also are injured.
LaFontaine will earn $750,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 at the AHL level, plus an $88,500 signing bonus.
"As the reigning Mike Richter Award recipient, Jack has proven he's ready to take the next steps in his career,'' Hurricanes General Manager Don Waddell said in a statement. "We love his athleticism and consistency and can't wait for him to start his professional career.''
NHL teams typically don't sign college prospects in the middle of a season, and LaFontaine's signing is the most prominent example with the Gophers since forward Kyle Okposo signed with the New York Islanders in the middle of the 2007-08 season.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko issued a brief statement Sunday night.
"We would like to thank Jack for his contributions to the Gophers program, and we wish him well as he begins his professional career," Motzko's statement read.
LaFontaine's departure leaves the Gophers with very little experience in goal and without one of their three captains. Jared Moe, last season's backup to LaFontaine, transferred to Wisconsin in the offseason. This season's backup, junior Justen Close, has yet to start a collegiate game, though he played in exhibition victories over St. Thomas and the U.S. National Team Development Program, making 13 saves on 15 shots last Sunday, then 25 saves on 28 shots on Monday. In 2020-21, Close saw 20 minutes of relief action and gave up two goals on seven shots against Wisconsin. The Kindersley, Saskatchewan, native played in three games in relief appearances as a freshman in 2019-20, giving up three goals on 14 shots.
Behind Close in the Gophers' pecking order so far this season is freshman Brennan Boynton, a former Champlin Park standout who led the USHL in regular-season wins (26) and shutouts (three) while posting a 2.43 GAA and a .901 save percentage for the Fargo Force during the 2020-21 season. Boynton has yet to play this season.
LaFontaine's departure will further impact a Gophers roster that might be without standout forwards Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies, and defenseman Brock Faber, who are expected to be invited to play for Team USA in the Winter Olympics.