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  • The Wild's Best College Free Agent Has Gotten Lost In Franchise History

    Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
    Tony Abbott

    It's early April, and the Minnesota Wild's chances still hover below 5% (2.8, specifically, as of Thursday morning). It's the time of the season when the most interesting thing to talk about is the future. Marat Khusnutdinov taking a spot in the lineup helps accelerate that intrigue for next year and beyond. So do the recent arrivals of Vladislav Firstov and Liam Öhgren to the Iowa Wild.

    Those players were all in the Wild organization, at least by draft rights. But it appears that Minnesota is also looking from without, as The Athletic's Michael Russo is reporting that the Wild are in the running for Quinnipiac forward Collin Graf. However, Graff signed with the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.

    Graf is legitimately interesting. After transferring from Union College to Quinnipiac between his freshman and sophomore years, Graf has 43 goals and 108 points over the past two seasons. That includes scoring the tying goal in the third period en route to capturing Quinnipiac's first Frozen Four title last season.

    EP Rinkside is fairly high on him, praising his brain and skills as a distributor. "Graf's always looking for the high-value pass," they say of the player they've ranked at No. 6 among college free agents. "He hits teammates as they move into space, often before they know it."

    He brings absurd numbers to the table, finishing behind only Adam Fantilli and Logan Cooley in scoring last season while tying for 10th in the NCAA this season. Unlike many college free agents who sign with NHL clubs at much older ages, Graf might have some runway left for his development. He won't turn 22 until September.

    Ultimately, there is a reason these players go undrafted, and it usually reflects a limited upside. That's not to say anyone shouldn't be happy if the Wild had signed Graf -- talent is talent -- but you may want to temper your expectations a touch.

    But to what? The Wild are no strangers to college free agency. Minnesota signed Nate Prosser as a college free agent in 2010, and he's played the 23rd-most games in franchise history. Other notable college free agents in team history include Nico Sturm and Christian Folin. Of course, there have been misses, like the hyped Casey Wellman. But again, if you can add talent for free, you do it.

    The most successful undrafted college free agent in team history -- and a realistic upside for Graf -- is a player that's long been forgotten by the NHL and even Minnesota fans outside of the biggest Wild Sickos. This forward played 197 games for the Wild and never again in the NHL. Still, if you look at the right corners, you'll wonder how on earth this guy managed to be arguably the most impactful depth piece in team history.

    Because, folks, if Graf turns into Justin Fontaine, San Jose hit a grand slam so hard that it will bend the foul pole.

    Fine, fine. This might or might not just be an excuse for me to write about Fontaine, who I'm still ride-or-die for despite not playing in the NHL since 2016. The Pride of Bonnyville, Alberta, "Fonzie" hasn't even played professional hockey since he played in the DEL in the 2019-20 season (the Deutsch Elite League in Germany, not Tha Funkee Homosapien).

    You won't find anything special about his counting stats in Minnesota. As mentioned, he played just 197 games (55th in Wild history), with just 27 goals (tied for 52nd) and 68 points (55th). Sure, he's out-produced Devin Setoguchi, Darby Hendrickson, Marcus Johansson, and Luke Kunin, but is any of that much to hang your hat on?

    It wasn't raw numbers that made Fontaine a sneaky pick for one of the best players in Wild history, though. It was economy. Fontaine played fewer than 11 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey a night, but he swung things wildly in Minnesota's favor. Over his three seasons in Minnesota, his team outscored opponents 88-63 at 5-on-5. That plus-25 goal differential was sixth on the Wild behind Jason Pominville, Jared Spurgeon, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Marco Scandella

    The raw numbers look good but not great, but remember: It's about the economy. Those players played about 1000 5-on-5 minutes or more than Fontaine over those three seasons. That's a lot of time to pump up that goal differential. Going on a per-hour basis, Fontaine's impact was up with some of the NHL's best.

    For every hour of 5-on-5 time, Fontaine scored 0.7 goals more (on average) than his opponents. That was tied for 40th in the NHL among 432 players with 2000 or more minutes. Sitting alongside him were John Klingberg (the good Dallas version, not the last-year-in-Minnesota one), Mats Zuccarello, and Brendan Gallagher. He outscored his opponents on a better per-hour margin than Jamie Benn (0.69 5-on-5 goal differential per hour), Patrick Kane (0.68), and Patrice Bergeron (0.66).

    This wasn't the product of one fluke season, either. Fontaine outscored his opponents at 5-on-5 in each of his three NHL seasons. He also stood out when it came to directly generating offense.

    We only have these numbers since the 2007-08 season (thanks to sites like Evolving-Hockey for keeping these). But since then, Minnesota has had 48 forwards who have played over 1000 minutes at 5-on-5. Fontaine scored 1.74 points per hour over his Wild career, which ranks tied for 16th among that group. To better understand who he's seated with at this table, he's tied with Jason Zucker, just slightly behind Zach Parise (1.78 5-on-5 points per hour as a Wild) and above Joel Eriksson Ek (1.71).

    It was a beautiful display of pure economy. Fontaine made the most of his talents and ice time. His combination of scoring and on-ice play-driving makes him stealthily one of the best players in recent memory. In terms of Evolving-Hockey's WAR, Fontaine is 26th in team history with 9.4 Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) since the 2007-08 season.

    The only player to out-produce him in fewer minutes is Marian Gaborik in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. Most everyone ahead of him on the list has two-to-eight times the amount of ice time Fontaine has. Evening it all out on a per-minute basis, Fontaine shines in SPAR per hour among Wild history (minimum 1000 minutes):

    SPAR per hour, Minnesota Wild, since 2007-08:

    1. Marian Gaborik: 0.409
    2. Nino Niederreiter: 0.239
    3. JUSTIN FONTAINE: 0.237
    4. Pavol Demitra: 0.234
    5. Kirill Kaprizov: 0.232
    6. Matt Boldy: 0.224
    7. Jason Zucker: 0.224
    T-8. Andrew Brunette: 0.194
    T-8: Guillaume Latendresse: 0.194
    10. Ryan Donato: 0.193

    The Wild weren't able to land Graf. But if they had, it would have been easy to dream that Minnesota has their next top-six forward prospect. While that would be fantastic, it's generally not a realistic outcome for that kind of signing. If you're asking me what I'd want out of Graf (or any college free agent Minnesota signs), well, I miss Justin Fontaine, and I'd sure love to see another suit up in St. Paul.

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    Fontaine was good in the memorable playoff Rd.1 win against Colorado when prototypical rat Matt Cooke broke Tyson Barrie's knee and Nino sniped the winning goal on the 2v1.


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    The Wild are not mathematically eliminated yet, but they are now out of it. The Kings only need to go 2-4 in their final 6 to lock the Wild out of the playoffs.

    The East actually has teams vying for that final playoff spot, so some teams like the Sabres or Devils could pass the Wild in points.

    If the Wild can hold off from adding to their standings points, they still have a shot to slide into the bottom 10-11 teams, which would give them a small chance of vaulting into the top 3 via the lottery. I was in favor of trying for the playoffs when there was a realistic shot, but that time has passed them by.

    Can they give Zane McIntyre or Hunter Jones some NHL experience?

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    1 hour ago, Imyourhuckleberry said:

    Can they give Zane McIntyre or Hunter Jones some NHL experience?

    Zane is too nice of a guy to be treated that way. I know the money may be different but still, he is a great guy and that would be ugly.

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    Good ol' Fonzie.

    Feel like this article was narrowcasted hard at certain people. 

    That said, the Wild need more guys that can cash in on few opportunities going forward in depth roles and stop giving oodles of minutes to dudes like NoJo that clearly do not deserve the ice time they get.

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    I always liked Fontaine. One thing he had was a really sneaky stick. He was one of the few that could really get in people's ways and knock pucks down. When Chicago had half a team full of those guys, Fontaine was really our only guy who could do that. 

    It'd be nice to hit on another college free agent like that.

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