Maple Leafs Add Character, Leadership & More With Foligno Trade

Just under a week ago, Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas traded away the organization’s first-round draft choice in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft for the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 33-year-old captain Nick Foligno.

Maple Leafs’ fans probably know this already, but the trade was complicated. Because the Maple Leafs didn’t have enough salary-cap space to absorb Foligno’s $5.5 million salary-cap hit, a team with salary-cap space became a “broker” to allow the deal to happen. That team was the San Jose Sharks.

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To make the trade work and to allow the Maple Leafs to stay under the upper limits of the currently flat salary-cap, the Blue Jackets retained fifty percent of Foligno’s salary. Then, the Maple Leafs traded a 2022 fourth-round draft pick to the Sharks in exchange for their retaining half the remaining half (25 percent) of Foligno’s salary. The Sharks shipped forward Stefan Noesen to the Maple Leafs in that deal.

Stefan Noesen San Jose Sharks
New Maple Leafs’ Stefan Noesen, formerly of the San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When the ice chips melted, the Maple Leafs had picked up Foligno from the Blue Jackets and Noesen from the Sharks. The Blue Jackets got the Maple Leafs’ first-round draft pick this year and a fourth-round pick in 2022. The Sharks got a fourth-round draft choice in 2022.

Now, with 15 games left in the team’s 56-game season, Toronto has Foligno for a quarter of his salary-cap cost ($1.375 million). (from “The Maple Leafs land Nick Foligno in a three-team trade, Mark Zwolinski, Toronto Star, 11/04/21).

What we do know is that the Maple Leafs are all-in this season with its bid to end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back 54 seasons to 1967. In the remainder of this post, I’ll try to add to the conversation about what exactly the team picked up by adding Foligno to its roster.

The Maple Leafs Set Out to Remake the Team During the Offseason

When the Maple Leafs started to remake their team after the first-round ousting by the Blue Jackets last season, it vowed to bring more grit and experience to the team. And it did so by adding Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Zach Bogosian, and T.J. Brodie. The team also re-signed Jason Spezza for a second season. Foligno fits into that same mode as a player.

Joe Thornton Toronto Maple Leafs
Joe Thornton, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

There’s little doubt these additions were wise and accomplished much of what the team set out to do. Although both Thornton and Simmonds have been set back by injuries and perhaps Thornton also by age, the team’s overall defense is much improved over previous seasons. As a coach, Sheldon Keefe has many more lineup options than he had last season.

The fact that Foligno wanted to come to Toronto makes a huge difference as well. As he noted, “I’m a guy that plays off his heart, his gut. My heart told me this was the right move.”

Foligno’s History on NHL Ice

To suggest what Foligno might bring to the team, let me share a bit about his background. He was named the sixth captain in Blue Jackets history after the 2014-15 season – so he brings leadership. At 33 years of age, his high-scoring days are behind him; however, he did score 31 goals and 73 points in 2014-15 and this season scored his 200th NHL goal. So, similar to Spezza, he still can contribute by scoring.

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His play against the Maple Leafs over the seasons has been strong and – just as often – physical. Since the NHL began to track hits as a statistic at the start of the 2007-2008 season, Foligno has ranked 11th among all active NHL players and is 21st in that category all-time – so he adds the grit and physicality the team desires. Although he’s only six-feet tall, he’s also dropped the gloves with such heavyweights as Ryan Reeves. He brings a fearless attitude to the ice.

Foligno’s a Hard-Working NHL Player

Foligno brings his work ethic to the team. He’s gritty, tough, and his attitude of never giving up makes him hard to play against. He’s an exceptionally hard-working player who’s willing to do the hard things and go to the tough spaces to carry the team. His willingness to engage those rough places, while adding scoring depth and defense capabilities, helps provide value to whatever line he plays with.

Columbus Blue Jackets Nick Foligno Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Former Blue Jackets Nick Foligno protects the puck from Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

The 33-year-old winger is considered a strong defensive forward; and, although Foligno’s no longer the most-skilled NHL player, he’s a great leader. He’s exceedingly team-oriented to the point of being selfless. He moves from the Blue Jackets, where he’s been the team’s captain since the end of the 2014-15 NHL season. [The previous Blue Jackets’ captain had been Rick Nash, who had moved to the New York Rangers in 2012.]

With the Maple Leafs, he comes to a lineup where he’ll obviously assume a role as an informal leader. He’ll fill in as a role player – playing up and down the lineup as his new head coach Keefe desires.

Foligno Fits the Maple Leafs’ Ethos

Foligno’s a player who’ll also fits well with the Maple Leafs’ team ethos. At the 2016-17 season’s end, he was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which is a Community Service Award given to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who’s made humanitarian contributions to his community. Foligno also was awarded the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, presented to the NHL player who exemplifies leadership qualities to his team both on and off the ice during the regular season.

Foligno Adds These Characteristics to the Team

In the end, the Maple Leafs picked up Foligno, who’s scored seven goals and nine assists (for 16 points) in 42 games this season. As noted, Foligno’s exactly the type of player the Maple Leafs have brought in to do short-term roster building for this one season’s Stanley Cup push. The veteran former Blue Jackets’ captain will fill in throughout the lineup as needed; he plays a solid defensive game; and, he’ll provide secondary offense.

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Foligno adds leadership, character, a selfless attitude, team-focused play, grit, experience, and defense to the team. Unquestionably these are characteristics any Stanley Cup winner needs.

As soon as Foligno hits the ice with a Maple Leafs’ crest, he immediately becomes one of the team’s best defensive forwards. Although his offensive production has slipped from his peak seasons, his ability to neutralize opposition is a welcome addition to the Maple Leafs’ lineup as playoff hockey nears. 

Was Foligno Worth the Price?

Whether bringing in Foligno was worth the price is a question to be answered only as the team pushes through the end of this 2020-21 season. However, the Maple Leafs are following an example set by the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning last season when the team brought in solid additions at the end of the season; and, that move paid off.

Zach Bogosian Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season current Maple Leafs’ defenseman Zach Bogosian won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning
(Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

The Maple Leafs have pushed all their poker chips to the center of the table and Foligno is – in poker slang – the team’s ace-seven (A-7). The Maple Leafs have as good a chance this season as they’ve had since 1967 to make a strong run at the Stanley Cup. They’re going all in, and Foligno looks to become a big part of the team moving toward that goal.

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Maple Leafs’ fans will only know if Foligno’s worth the price when the season has ended. He came at the rental cost of a first-round draft choice. But, as I read in another article today about Foligno, there’s an ironic hockey saying that goes “flags are temporary, but prospects (and picks) fly forever.”

Clearly, the Maple Leafs’ goal this season is to end a Stanley Cup drought that has plagued generations of Maple Leafs’ fans. I retired as a full-time teacher after 52 years and I hadn’t started my career when the team won its last Stanley Cup.

It’s time.