Hartford Wolf Pack veteran forward Justin Fontaine had spent the entirety of the last three seasons in the NHL, skating in nearly 200 games with the Minnesota Wild, prior to signing a free-agent contract with the New York Rangers October 16.
Despite his ample NHL experience, and good offensive success in the AHL with the Houston Aeros before he made the leap to the Big Show, Fontaine started slowly with the Wolf Pack. His first eight games produced only one goal and three points, before he chipped in assists in three straight contests, including a two-assist effort Wednesday night at home against Springfield, a 3-2 shootout win that snapped an 0-6-2-0 drought for the Wolf Pack.
Fontaine attributes his early offensive struggles to the fact that his role in the AHL differs significantly from what he was asked to do during his three NHL campaigns with the Wild.
“It takes a few games to get back in it,” Fontaine said Thursday. “Puck touches, you’ve got 20 times more with the puck a game (in the AHL), and I think that’s something I wasn’t used to. And now you’re getting more confidence with it, you’re not throwing it away right away, you think you’ve got more time out there than you’ve had previously. So I think comfort and confidence is the biggest thing.”
Ironically, Fontaine had to make the opposite adjustment in order to get himself to the NHL, after a four-year college career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth that saw him roll up 164 points in 159 Bulldog games, and win an NCAA title his Senior year (2010-11).
“It all started in the AHL, to round my game from college,” Fontaine said. “It was really offensive, and you’ve got to be a good two-way player, and I was able to definitely be a defensive guy, playing against top lines. And I think that’s what kind of molded me into making the NHL. I knew I wasn’t going to be a top six guy, with players that are signed and top draft picks, and the talent that’s out there. So to make the league you’ve got to find where you fit in, and I think versatility was my biggest thing, where I can play in any situation, and that was able to get me there.”
Finding himself back in the AHL at the age of 29, and as a sixth-year vet, might seem like starting all over, but Fontaine feels positive about playing a more prominent role with the Wolf Pack and being counted on to create offense.
“You want to have the puck as much as you can, you want to be out there helping the team, and you’re playing in offensive situations,” the Bonnyville, Alberta native elaborated. “I haven’t really been in those kind of situations in a few years, so it takes a little bit of time, but definitely getting more comfortable out there.”
That comfort level has been enhanced by the opportunity to play on a line recently with fellow veterans Marek Hrivik and Nicklas Jensen, currently the Wolf Pack’s top two scorers. In the streak-busting win over the Thunderbirds on Wednesday, both Wolf Pack regulation goals were scored by Jensen, with Fontaine picking up the primary assists.
“I think that’s more of a role I was before I made it to the NHL, I think I was a disher,” Fontaine said. “And I also like to shoot the puck, I want to get in scoring areas too, don’t get me wrong, but [Jensen] can really let it go. If he can get into scoring areas and find the open ice, I think we’ll work well together, and it’s been good so far.
“I think a little bit more practice, a little more talk about plays on the ice, we can be a very dynamic line and continue to contribute every night and be consistent for our team.”
Jensen’s two tallies in the Wednesday-night victory were his fifth and sixth of the season, tying him with Hrivik for the team lead, and he is thankful to be able to benefit from Fontaine’s on-ice vision.
“That’s his strength, his hockey sense, and when he’s on his game he’s threading passes through areas where you might not normally see passing coming,” Jensen said of his linemate. “[Wednesday] night was one of those nights where it worked, and especially on the first goal, he made a great pass, I just had to put it in an empty net.
“He’s a great player. He sees the ice really well, a great passer, and for me especially, being a shooter, it’s always nice to have a passer on your line. And [Hrivik] is a great passer too, but he can finish too, and so can Fonzie (Fontaine), but I think Fonzie kind of looks more to find those passes.”
The fact that Fontaine had struggled to click offensively prior to the last three games was a source of some frustration, and the lack of wins for the team made the situation even tougher. Fontaine was certainly not alone, however in that regard.
“It’s always frustrating for anyone, not just myself, when you’re not winning,” he said. “It’s tough, you want to get out there and win and you’re always playing from behind, but things are moving in a more positive direction in the last couple of games, feeling a little more comfort. I missed a few weeks before camp started, and just trying to get my game back going here.”
Fontaine and the other veterans on the team did their best to stay upbeat during the losing skein, knowing that it was important to keep the club’s younger players from getting too down on themselves.
“It’s tough, you tell guys, ‘Put it behind you, it happens,’ but it just was one game after another after another,” Fontaine said. “Even [Wednesday] night, there was a couple of penalties there that cost us two quick goals. It definitely deflates you, but we showed a lot of character to battle back and eventually get the win. It’s something that builds up and it wears on you, but I think if we can continue to limit those mistakes and grow as a team, we’re going to be more successful.”
A lot has happened for Fontaine in the last few months, beginning with his departure from the Wild and culminating in his joining the Ranger organization.
“That’s hockey, you go different paths,” Fontaine mused. “I was headed to Florida, and ended up getting injured in the fitness testing, so it was kind of a frustrating start to my whole season. But I got healthy, was able to sign a two-way (NHL contract) with the Rangers here, and just want to work on my game, continue to grow my game every day, and I like the direction that it’s been going the last couple of games.”
With this Wolf Pack group, Fontaine qualifies as a grizzled veteran, the second-oldest player on the team, but that does not change the approach he has always brought to the game.
“Just being able to come to the rink, I don’t even feel like I’m a more veteran guy,” Fontaine said. “I’m still in the same situation I felt when I first became a pro, joking around and having a good time. And I think that’s what keeps me more focused, so I definitely want to continue to grow my game and get back up to speed.”