Justin Fontaine: The Wild’s Most Underrated Player
With the Minnesota Wild trading to acquire Sean Bergenheim and Chris Stewart at the trade deadline, the Wild forward corps is getting a little crowded. That’s going to become interesting as Ryan Carter, Matt Cooke, and, eventually, Jason Zucker get healthy. That’s excluding that the team has Jordan Schroeder — who has played very well — sitting in the press box and Brett Sutter, Tyler Graovac, and Stephane Veilleux waiting in Iowa. (As well as our beloved Michael Keranen, who won’t be a factor, but I can dream.)
That is going to leave coach Mike Yeo with some difficult decisions very soon. While the team’s system has moved toward a puck possession style (insofar as that’s even a thing, it’s more complicated than that), the roster decisions this season has not always reflected a valuation of shot attempt differentials. But, it needs to, and those decisions should ensure that Justin Fontaine does not come out of the lineup as players get healthy. He is the most underrated player on the team and it is silly that he has been scratched as much as he has this season.
Here’s a look at Fontaine’s numbers and how he ranks among Wild forwards.
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Some of what is baffling about the lack of roster love for Fontaine is that both results and process seem to be working for him. He has the second best Goals For percentage (GF%, showing what percentage of goals scored while the player was on the ice are in his team’s favor) and Goals For relative (GF%Rel, his GF% when he’s on the ice compared to the team’s GF% when he’s not on the ice) on the team. That looks even better when you realize that the only player ahead of him is Schroeder, who has only played 18 games.
Fontaine is bound by his role and his minutes, but for his role he’s scoring at a great pace. His assists per 60 minutes of even strength play (A/60) has him behind only Stewart, who has barely been with the team, and Carter, who isn’t currently in the lineup. His points per 60 minutes of even strength play (P/60) is second only to Stewart.
His individual scoring chances (iSC) and individual shots for (iSF) are both solid as well and everyone above him, with the exception of Zucker, has played more games than he has and tends to get more minutes per game than he does.
Those are largely results based stats, but the process is there too. When you look at his dCorsi (short for Delta Corsi, a measurement balancing the expected Corsi — on-ice shot attempts — based on the player’s usage compared to the observed Corsi) he’s second only to Nino Niederreiter, who has a pretty remarkable 116.19.
Fontaine is posting some very solid, if not downright impressive numbers. These aren’t the numbers of a player you should be benching.
Here’s where Fontaine is making his bacon. (And also probably in his kitchen, but I don’t have exact details on how he makes actual bacon. If you read this, Justin Fontaine, please let us know how you actually make your bacon. I like mine with syrup.) He makes everyone he plays with better. Below I’m going to look at his WOWY (with or without you) numbers. These numbers compare the production of players when they are on the ice with Fontaine versus when they are on the ice without Fontaine.
A couple things to note: Fontaine gets juggled like crazy, making his role on the team even more difficult. The TOI with Fontaine column below shows that he has played with everyone and played with no one very consistently. Yet, without having the privilege that a line like Parise-Granlund-Pominville has, he’s managed to be productive and make other players better.
Well, everyone except Thomas Vanek. Strangely, it was the pairing of Fontaine and Vanek that was attracting attention for quite a while as a strong pair of wingers together. Vanek is the only forward whose numbers don’t improve with Fontaine. Every other forward is seeing improved possession numbers when they play with Fontaine versus when they don’t.
Below are the WOWY numbers for every forward on the team with Fontaine. The forwards excluded all played fewer than ten minutes of even strength play with Fontaine. Those players include Bergenheim (2:49 together), Schroeder (1:21 together), Stewart (1:16 together), Sutter (9:06 together), Veilleux (5:58 together), and Jason Pominville (2:04 together).
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You’ll notice that in the last two columns I’ve brought ZSO% (offensive zone start percentage) into play. Fontaine is not only giving everyone on the team, less Vanek, improved possession numbers, it’s happening with worse zone starts than those players are getting when they play without Fontaine. Only Kyle Brodziak and Charlie Coyle face tougher zone starts without Fontaine than with him.
Again, these numbers show that both results and process are indicating that Fontaine is improving the team. Only Koivu has a better GF% without Fontaine. In sum, with very rare exception every forward on the team who plays with Fontaine is facing tougher minutes with Fontaine on the ice but is exhibiting improved possession and is scoring more goals than they allow versus when they are on the ice without Fontaine.
Fontaine, Justin Fontaine
We frequently hear situations like this called a logjam, and there’s certainly some good reason for it, but the implication is that this is a bad situation. For the Wild, whether they rotate players in and out or not, this is a great situation. Leaving aside that some of the young players could benefit from competition, the team has battled through injuries all season and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll make it down the stretch and into the playoffs without another injury.
If their option in the event of a forward injury is having Matt Cooke, Erik Haula, Kyle Brodziak, or Ryan Carter enter the lineup, that’s a great situation. This is a team that’s constructed with depth and you’ll remember that injuries have played a part in the last two postseason runs. Dany Heatley didn’t get to play two years ago. Coyle played with two separated shoulders last year. Pominville was sidelined two years ago. Matt Moulson had to come out of the lineup last year. These things happen and this team is deeper than ever.
I might be giving the hard sell a bit here, but the deluge of numbers goes to show that it’s not selective vision. The logjam isn’t a bad thing, but there’s no reason Fontaine should be one of the players riding the roster line. Fontaine makes the Wild better whether you’re giving him the ol’ eye test or digging deep into his numbers. The pitch isn’t that he’s a top six player, but that he’s a player who can drive possession on the third or fourth line. We’ve seen it. The recent hot streak from the fourth line when it was Fontaine with Erik Haula and Brodziak wasn’t chance or match-ups, it was strong play from a depth line that led to wins.
He’s the kind of player a contender needs, someone who is driving play and has the ability to provide secondary scoring. He’s consistent and it doesn’t matter much with these numbers if Matt Cooke has that intangible Stanley Cup experience and leadership that we’ll hear commentators refer to repeatedly as he gets close to a return. We started to see these qualities in Fontaine last season, now he’s delivering on that promise and giving the Wild the kind of depth that can lead to a serious playoff run.
(All stats via War on Ice, except Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) which is via Hockey Prospectus and WOWY numbers, which are via Puckalytics. All stats are even strength play. Stats are current as of Thursday afternoon.)
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