On Sunday, April 11, everything was quiet on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front. Fans were refreshing Twitter every five minutes like they typically do during trade deadline season. But there was nothing to report on yet, nothing other than the Riley Nash deal from Friday.
Then, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas essentially said enough was enough.
Related: Trade Deadline Tracker
The Leafs would pull off a three-way trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks to bring forwards Nick Foligno and Stefan Noesen to Toronto. Then, just as Leafs’ Twitter had finally calmed down and got ready to go to sleep, the team acquired goaltender David Rittich from the Calgary Flames.
The Rittich trade is interesting enough for its own piece, so we’re going to focus on Foligno here.
It’s been well established around the hockey world that the Leafs would be one of the more active teams at the trade deadline. The Leafs made it a priority to shift the culture in the locker room heading into this season, as seen with the acquisitions of Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Zach Bogosian. And the results have shown on the ice this year.
When you watch a team in the middle of the hockey mecca of the world, it’s easy to nitpick the things they’re doing wrong, even if the results have been elite. Such is the case this year. The power play and penalty kill have had their woes this year, they had a goaltending issue up until Jack Campbell’s historic streak, there’s certainly been room for improvement.
But the Leafs have a different feel around them this year. The defense hasn’t been a glaring issue like it has been in years prior. And personally, I’ve actually felt comfortable watching them in the third period with a lead. Couldn’t say the same about last year’s team.
The Leafs’ overall play this year is an indication that Dubas is in it for the long haul. There was an obvious missing element during the 2019 playoffs against Boston and the 2020 bubble series with Columbus, and along with all of the offseason additions, Dubas continued to replenish that element with the acquisition of Foligno.
Foligno Was Worth the Cost
Drafted 28th overall in 2006 by the Ottawa Senators, Foligno has spent most of his career with the Blue Jackets. Currently, in his ninth season with the team, the Jackets named him team captain prior to the 2015-16 season and he’s held that title ever since. Aside from a breakout year offensively in 2014-15 that saw him register 73 points in 79 games, he’s always been a consistent 30-40 point guy.
I saw a lot of fans across social media complaining about this move. Saying that trading a first-round pick for a guy like Foligno whose best years are behind him was way too steep a price. Saying that using that first-round pick on Foligno while Taylor Hall was on the table was a complete missed opportunity.
But I think there’s an entirely different way of looking at this. The Leafs have never had a chance as good as this one to win the Stanley Cup. Between not having to deal with Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round, to having a much better defensive game, they have an easier path. And the reality is, good teams have to spend assets in order to really “go” for it.
We saw the same thing from Tampa Bay last year. Everybody (including myself) was questioning the Lightning when they forked over a first-round pick for Barclay Goodrow, who had 24 points in 62 games at the time. He ended up playing a pivotal third-line role for them en route to the Stanley Cup.
And you can say what you want about Hall, but when the Leafs were eliminated in game five last year, was anybody thinking “man, this team needs a Taylor Hall?” No. Just about every media outlet and fan was clamoring for more grit and hustle. And Foligno brings just that.
What Foligno Brings to the Leafs
While his offensive production has slowed down this year, with 16 points in 42 games, the Leafs didn’t acquire him to play that role. Their penalty kill ranks 20th league-wide and it’s an area the team has been said to want to improve in. He gives them an instant boost in that department.
Plus, the most notorious part of Foligno’s game is the exact aspect the Leafs have been looking for from all of their players. He never takes his foot off the gas. And the five-game series in the bubble against Columbus proved that to a tee. While Columbus’ system is noticeably different than the Leafs’, there is no question he can bring that same gritty style to Toronto.
Foligno could also be utilized in multiple different roles in Toronto. He’s used to playing top-six minutes with Columbus, so he could slot in as the checking forward on the second line with Tavares and Nylander. Or, if you want to monitor his minutes and put him into a pure checking role, he could run on the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev.
Hell, if you want to wreak total havoc, have both Foligno and Hyman on the third line. That would instantly become one of the best checking lines in the league.
And on the flip side, the 2021 draft class is noticeably weaker than some of the ones we’ve seen in recent years. Between Owen Power, Matthew Beniers, Brandt Clarke, and Luke Hughes, there isn’t even a surefire first overall pick. So having to give up a draft pick that will probably end up in the 25th to 32nd overall range shouldn’t be the end of the world.
To further prove this point, Noesen was a former first-round pick. Not everybody hits in the first round. And Dubas has proven that he can strike gold in the later rounds. Just look at Nick Robertson and how he’s rated throughout the Leafs’ organization. He went 53rd overall.
To make things even easier for the Leafs, the Sharks are acting as the brokers in this trade. They are paying 25% of Foligno’s salary while the Blue Jackets are retaining 50%. That leaves the Leafs with 25% of Foligno’s salary to pay and still roughly six million in cap space to work with.
And to Columbus’ credit, they made out like gangbusters. Getting two first-round picks out of Foligno and David Savard is some excellent deadline work by Jarmo Kekalainen. There’s a strong sense that it could end up becoming one of those trades that works out swimmingly for both sides.
The bottom line that I’m trying to stress with this article is that while trading a first-round pick for somebody Foligno’s age would typically be frowned upon, this move was no doubt the correct one to make. He instantly bolsters the Leafs’ defensive awareness and penalty kill and gives them yet another leader to look up to in the dressing room.
The Leafs are clearly in it for the long haul this year. They didn’t sign a 41-year-old Thornton only to get eliminated in the first round again. It’s known league-wide how much Foligno was adored in Columbus, and showing up to Toronto where his dad spent the tail end of his career including the infamous 1993 run, all while wearing the same number, I can’t imagine the vibes will be any different.
The first round pick may sting at first glance, but give Foligno a few games with the Leafs and I guarantee he’s an instant fan favourite.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.