Hurricanes News & Rumors: LaFontaine, Cancellations, & Brind’Amour

The Carolina Hurricanes, coming off a tough back-to-back and with the goalie position throughout the organization absolutely ravaged by injuries, are in a peculiar position a little over a week into 2022. The team is finally getting some semblance of “health” back in their lineup, but the goalie position is down to two players between the NHL and AHL. Luckily the team’s play on the ice continues to be top-notch, with their hard-fought, 4-3 overtime loss to Florida (with their third-string goalie in net, too) snapping a five-game winning streak. The team has still won nine of their last 11 games.

However, since the coronavirus struck again, the team had a little unexpected time on their hands to make a move and shore up their depth at the goalie position ever-so-slightly. We’ll talk about that in this week’s News & Rumors, as well as the schedule down the stretch, and the head coach getting the chance to head to Las Vegas in February for a weekend full of excitement. Since that sounds like something that is right up Rod Brind’Amour’s alley.

LaFontaine Headed for NHL Duty?

With three of their five goaltenders at the professional level hurt, and no current timetable on Antti Raanta outside of, “more than a few days,” it was announced on Monday afternoon that 2016 Hurricanes’ third-round draft pick Jack Lafontaine would be signing a one-year, entry-level contract (from Why Jack LaFontaine is leaving NCAA Minnesota midseason, and why the Hurricanes need him right now”, The Athletic, January 10, 2022),.

The team then added LaFontaine to their taxi squad on Monday, meaning the 6-foot-3 goaltender could actually be seeing the NHL crease in the near future. Brind’Amour noted that the team wants to see what they have in the 24-year-old, who won the Mike Richter Award winner as the NCAA’s top goaltender in 2021. That could mean his NHL debut is coming sooner than later, especially if Raanta is going to miss an extended period. This gives the team a smidge of flexibility at the backup spot between LaFontaine and Alex Lyon, who performed admirably, but took the loss against the Florida Panthers on Saturday.

Jack LaFontaine (Jim Rosvold-Minnesota Athletics)
Hurricanes goalie Jack LaFontaine, with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (Jim Rosvold-Minnesota Athletics)

LaFontaine has had some struggles this year, with his save percentage (SV%) dipping to .900, down from the .934 and .919 marks he posted his first two seasons at the University of Minnesota. However, with his size and positionally sound style, he still has NHL upside. Along with the fact that he has already graduated, the move makes some sense from both parties’ perspectives. He’s guaranteed professional playing time – whether that be at the NHL or AHL level – and gives him a chance to earn himself some minutes next year. An $88K signing bonus sounds pretty nice, too.

The Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, have signed four goalies to PTOs over the last few weeks, doing whatever they could to bide time while Eetu Makiniemi and Beck Warm are both on the shelf. And, as previously mentioned, Lyon has been in Carolina since Raanta’s injury, making the team suddenly extremely thin at the position. So, instead of bringing in another player from outside the organization, they simply decided the best course of action was to sign LaFontaine a few months earlier than originally planned.

It’ll be interesting to follow LaFontaine over the next few weeks, but there are also questions about how the goalie room looks moving forward. He could certainly push his way into the Hurricanes’ plans, but with Makiniemi already showing very well and top goalie prospect Pyotr Kochetkov eligible to sign in May from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the Chicago goalie room could get quite crowded next season. That’s a good problem to have, though.

Another Cancellation, More Future Issues

Tuesday night’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers was yet another casualty of COVID-19, and there have been plenty of interesting angles to look at the matter. The Flyers have just three players in COVID protocol currently, since their captain, Claude Giroux, exited yesterday – and before the game was canceled from what I’ve gathered. Also, remember, there is a taxi squad now, on which a team can carry six additional players. So… what are we doing here? I seem to remember the Hurricanes playing two games while missing seven players pretty recently.

Plenty has already been said about that, and what’s done is done, so there’s no reason to dwell on it. We can, however, look ahead and consider that the back half of the schedule, which is already going to be extremely busy for the Hurricanes, is going to get even tighter.

Related: Hurricanes’ Top 10 Prospects: January 2022 Update

The team has already seven games re-scheduled, and none of the makeup dates have yet been released. The easy target the NHL office has already referenced as a solution would be to fill in these games over the NHL’s now-pointless Olympic break, but the likelihood of arena availability fitting all those in that two-week period seems like a pipe dream. Will the regular season get extended? Will teams end up traveling an extreme amount and just playing a crazy-truncated schedule? There are a lot of questions up in the air right now, so it’ll be interesting to see what direction the league goes.

Now, the Hurricanes are far from the only team that’s dealing with this issue, so there will be no reason to make excuses. The team seems to do a heck of a lot better when they play a lot anyway, definitely better than they tend to, coming off long breaks (granted, against Calgary last week after a five-day break, that only lasted about a period, and suddenly they looked like the ‘Canes again). So, rather than fall into a lull with all the time off, perhaps they can find a real groove in the back half of the year.

Brind’Amour to Coach Metro Division All-Stars

It’s not like it was voted on or decided in some other interesting manner – simply, the coach from each division’s best team by points percentage on Jan. 10 was going to earn the nod – but nonetheless, another accolade is headed to Brind’Amour’s jacket. The fourth-year head coach is going to (presumably) get the chance to lead names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, and the rest of the Metropolitan Division All-Stars on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas for the NHL All-Star game.

With a record of 144-73-22 and three straight trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs with a young, rapidly-improving team, Brind’Amour continues to solidify his place as one of the best coaches in all of hockey. And no, this doesn’t seem like the type of thing that’s going to make him jump for joy or get particularly excited about at all, as I’m sure he’d rather use his break to hang with his kids and hit the gym like any other off-days he gets (not that I actually know what he does in his free time, but that seems like a good guess, right?). However, there just may be something to be said for some stars around the league to get a chance to be around the Carolina bench boss and get an inside look at why his teams seem to perform so impressively so consistently.

Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, I’m not saying that, like, Panarin, or anyone else, is going to sign with the Hurricanes simply because he said “your turn” and let them jump over the boards for a glorified game of pond hockey (although it would be downright hilarious to see the Metro team going all out and win each game by a score of like 10-0 because they’re so pumped up by his intensity and leadership). Nevertheless, it’s really cool to see some notoriety earned by the Hurricanes organization after the incredible turnaround the team has seen under the leadership of Brind’Amour, as well as general manager Don Waddell and owner Tom Dundon. They deserve all the credit they are receiving these days, and probably a lot more.

Hurricanes Still Searching for Rhythm

The Hurricanes will finally be back in action Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Carolina has already beaten them twice this year – scoring 12 goals in the process – so this will be a good game to potentially quickly get back into the swing of things. They will then face the previously-surging, Vancouver Canucks, with both of these games coming at PNC Arena. Then the Boston Bruins await next week, a game most Hurricanes fans will have circled and surely won’t put too much stock into as a barometer for the team’s playoff hopes.

With a challenging, but highly interesting stretch of schedule upcoming, our fingers remain crossed that we won’t have to deal with any more schedule disruptions for a while. Unfortunately, this remains the world in which we live, with COVID causing a continuous cloud to surround the league. With all this going on, it doesn’t really feel like we’re soon to be entering the home stretch of the season, but usually, come January, coaches and general managers are thinking that way. Days and games are rapidly getting crossed off the schedule, playoff races are heating up, and teams are starting to realize what they have, what they don’t, and how they can either improve or set themselves up for the future as the trade deadline rapidly approaches.

With so many games having to be re-scheduled, it doesn’t quite feel that way just yet this year. But, for the Hurricanes, finally almost healthy and basically icing the team they had on paper when the season began, it’ll be fascinating to watch the team – and the front office – work over the next few months. Can Brind’Amour find lines he likes and stick to them? How about power-play units? What do the Hurricanes really have in Raanta? Or Ethan Bear? Is Seth Jarvis a top-six player right now, and does his arrival, alongside the addition of a surging Jesperi Kotkaniemi, give the Hurricanes enough firepower to take the next step? Many questions still don’t have answers. But, if Carolina can find their rhythm and build off their fantastic first 33 games, hopefully, virus protocol and the NHL schedule will allow us to have them by April.

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