The Florida Panthers have very few spots available on their opening-night 23-man roster, but former Minnesota Wild forward Justin Fontaine seems determined to earn a job on the fourth line so he can avoid the unemployment line.
The Panthers invited Fontaine to training camp on a professional tryout offer after the Wild decided not to re-sign the 5-foot-10 speedy right wing following five years in their organization.
Fontaine, 28, who went undrafted after four seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, including the last two in which he scored more than 20 goals, averaged around 12 minutes in his first three seasons on the Wild.
He tallied 13 goals his rookie season and followed that with a career-high 31 points, including 22 assists in 2014-15. Those totals would’ve surpassed every third- or fourth-line forward on the Panthers last season, except for center Nick Bjugstad (34 points). However, Bjugstad saw some time on the second line and also garnered plenty of power-play minutes which Fontaine rarely received.
“I’m more of a versatility player, more of a fourth-line role the past few seasons,” Fontaine said after practice Sunday morning at the IceDen. “I got bumped up with injuries and stuff like that. I started killing [penalties], a kind of utility guy.”
Despite playing nearly half the time in shorthanded situations than Wild teammate Jonas Brodin, Fontaine was tied with him for the team lead with seven takeaways on Minnesota’s 27th-ranked penalty killing unit last season.
With the Panthers first two lines set in stone, there are some wing openings alongside third-line center Nick Bjugstad and fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie. Bjugstad, a Minnesota native whose production dropped to 15 goals in 67 games due to a month off with headaches, is a Fontaine fan after skating with him in the Twin Cities area over the past few summers.
“He’s a good player, a shifty player,” Bjugstad said. “It’d be awesome if he could make the team.”
Free-agent pickup Jonathan Marchessault is expected to earn a job on the bottom six along with veteran Shawn Thornton, who at 39, isn’t expected to play more than 40 games. So Fontaine is most likely battling another Minnesota product, rookie Kyle Rau, holdover Logan Shaw, Connor Brickley and Greg McKegg for a roster spot.
“He’s a fast player, a hard-working, penalty-killing type player, a defensive guy and he could put the puck in a little bit,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s on a PTO, so if he works hard and things go well, then hopefully he’ll deserve a contract.”
Tuesday’s preseason doubleheader against the Nashville Predators will be Fontaine’s first big audition.
“If a third- or fourth-line guy can also create when the other guys rest and contribute, be sound defensively then that helps,” said Fontaine, whose production dropped to five goals and 16 points in 60 games last season. “This league is turning into more of a speed league where you need three or four lines to go out there every night. If you can add that kind of execution and pressure you can put pressure on the other team.
“Every day you want to grow your game, compete, win puck battles, so when I get into an exhibition game I want to continue to work on system stuff and execute.” …
Gallant said that Alexkander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen and Vincent Trocheck, the three players who finished their World Cup duties, were given some time off to recharge and will join the team at practice on Thursday. …
A big cheer went up in the IceDen when ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr scored the game-winning goal in the intrasquad scrimmage Sunday morning.