clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Minnesota Wild can't afford (to lose) Justin Fontaine

New, comments

He may get caught up in a numbers game this summer, but his depth scoring would be hard to replace.

Justin Fontaine might be a healthy scratch tonight, but don't let that fool you- he's vastly underrated.
Justin Fontaine might be a healthy scratch tonight, but don't let that fool you- he's vastly underrated.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

With Jared Spurgeon signing his 4-year extension last week, the Minnesota Wild resolved their biggest question for the 2016 offseason. Of course, it's further fueled speculation that a trade of a defenseman is inevitable, but Spurgeon's new contract allows the Wild to be patient on that front, if they wish.

With the Spurgeon question taken care of, all eyes are now on a pair of pending Restricted Free Agents: Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba. Zucker in particular is inching closer to free agency, and his performance has warranted at least a contract similar to what Nino Niederreiter got in 2014. Keeping the speedy sniper in the fold will no doubt be a priority for Minnesota.

But while flashier players are getting the attention, Justin Fontaine is a few months away from being an Unrestricted Free Agent. To an outsider, this might not seem like a big deal. Fontaine's a bottom-6 player, getting only about 12 minutes per game. Sure, he scored 31 points last year, but he's now 28. He's neither a star player nor young enough so that you can expect his game to get much better than where he's at.

Those who have watched the Wild have a much better idea of Fontaine's true value. "Fonzie" is a solid depth player in every sense of the word. He's versatile enough to be put on essentially any line, in any situation, and he seems to produce no matter what.

That said, even if you're aware of this, you may be shocked as to just how much he produces in his limited ice time. (NOTE: I'm gonna throw a bunch of stats at you, but don't worry, I've marked the end for your stat-skipping convenience.) For example, he leads the Wild in Points per 60 minutes going back to last year with 2.22. Seriously. I checked and everything. It's more than Zach Parise (2.10). This compares extremely well to the rest of the league. Of the 337 forwards with 750+ 5v5 minutes in that time span, Fontaine's Points/60 is an extremely impressive 16th in the NHL.

That's right. 16th. As in ahead of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, and about 315 other dudes.

And it's not even just that he's been able to produce no matter where he lands in the lineup. It's that he's been able to make just about every one of his teammates better- often dramatically so. Here's a quick and dirty look at Fontaine's impact on linemates since the start of last year (minimum 90+ minutes played together):

Player

P/60 with Fontaine

P/60 w/o Fontaine

Difference

Cooke

2.79

1.28

+1.51

Brodziak

2.37

0.89

+1.49

Haula

2.10

0.69

+1.41

Carter

2.47

1.09

+1.38

Vanek

2.74

1.72

+1.02

Granlund

2.54

1.71

+0.83

Coyle

1.77

1.60

+0.17

Niederreiter

1.17

1.54

-0.37

Are there sample size issues at play here? Absolutely. But you can't ignore the trend: Fontaine can take a player who's not an offensive threat and make him one. Or, like in Vanek's case, he can take someone lethal and make him even more frightening. Sure, it's not likely that Fontaine can maintain that absurd production playing 17 minutes a game, but a player who can produce like he does is essential to Minnesota's secondary scoring.

Especially when he combines that with great defensive play. Remember that list of 337 forwards? Fontaine is 17th on that list in terms of Shots Allowed/60. Given his playmaking ability and his quietly great defense, it's no surprise that the Wild have out-scored opponents 48-28 at 5v5 when Fontaine's on the ice (the 63.2 GoalsFor% is 11th of 337 in the NHL over that time, by the way).

TL;DR: While Fontaine isn't obviously dominant, he's very good on both ends of the ice, and Minnesota pretty much kicks ass whenever he plays.

So, what's the hold-up? The Wild need to re-sign Fontaine. It's that easy, right?

Ideally, yeah. I'd have to think that the Wild know what they have in Fontaine, and would love to keep him around to constantly spark their third and fourth lines. But what will he cost? He's made around $1M for the past couple of years, but one thinks that his production is going to warrant a raise from that. I mean, the Wild signed Matt Cooke for $2.5M recently, and Fontaine is certainly better than an aging Cooke was. If Fontaine can't double his salary this offseason, he should look for a new agent.

So, let's say Fontaine can command $2M on the open market. Minnesota might not be able to fit that in. They already have ~$63M committed to 14 players going into next year. Even if the cap goes up $3M next year, that leaves just $10M for the Wild to extend Zucker and Dumba, sign a backup goalie and a fourth line. Not to mention that if they do make a move to try and land a Number 1 Center™, that player will come with a hefty salary. Things can always change, but Fontaine might be the odd-man out.

And if that day comes this summer, it'll be a shame. We've already seen what life without Fontaine is like when he missed a month due to a knee injury earlier this season- it was a terrible life devoid of secondary scoring. Depth matters in the NHL, and while you can find competent role players fairly easily, a depth player that provides as much as Fontaine can is extremely hard to replace. While it'll be very important to the long-term health of the Wild to get Zucker signed to an extension this summer, let's hope that they don't forget to keep Fontaine around, too.