Nick Foligno’s debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs could not have gone better. Sure, maybe he could’ve got the highlight reel going with a hat trick, score the game-winning goal or gone coast-to-coast like a wrecking ball. But he didn’t do much in the way of highlights, which made a successful introduction. There are lessons to be learned from his first game the Leafs could utilize going forward.
Do Your Job
It’s been the mantra of the New England Patriots for decades: do your job. There is no doubt the Pats have been the most successful franchise in the NFL during that time. Foligno did his job. He played the kind of hockey he is known for; he was positionally sound, defensive-minded, heavy on the puck, and challenging in the corners. He was a physical presence. A lot of players may have tried to do too much. He was playing on a line with two elite players, who create some jaw-dropping plays. Foligno didn’t try a no-look back pass or a full-speed spin-o-rama. He played the same way Leaf Nation watched him perform last season during the play-in series when he was the captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sheldon Keefe knew he could expect this kind of performance. This is what he said before the game, “I think a big reason why you acquire veteran players is because they know exactly who they are. They know exactly what works for them; they know what they need to bring to a team. They know why they were required. I don’t think you need to say too much to any veteran player, frankly, that has the longevity in the League, but somebody with the character and leadership qualities that Nick has, you’ve just got to give him the information. He needs to get up to speed with the team and the structure and things like that, but you’ve just got to let him play.”
I’m taking a page from my friend, The Old Prof’s book, and reading group psychology reports. Foligno’s addition elevated the entire team. Wayne Simmonds played his best game since returning to the lineup from an injury that kept him out for six weeks. Joe Thornton had a goal until a further review showed it went off Jason Spezza’s skate. Jumbo had been nearly invisible on the ice for weeks, but he played a much better game.
Group formation can be dramatically increased when the members “perceive active competition with another group.” Foligno joined this team not only on a five-game losing streak but facing the team trying to catch them for the top spot. That is an external threat to the group that motivated the team to come together faster. He was also on the ice for the last one minute and 30 seconds of the game to defend the one-goal lead. He then got away with the puck. Instead of forcing the issue, he calmly curled and found a wide-open Mitch Marner for an empty-net goal. He showed his new team he would do what it takes for the group to succeed.
Play with Passion
Playing with passion is easier said than done. Toronto has played 40 plus games against the same six teams. It’s not that they are bored, but everyone seems to be looking toward the playoffs. During the last few weeks of games, the celebration after a goal has been more muted. Perhaps it’s because there is no crowd, but we are not seeing the celly that will be featured in next year’s video games.
Did you see Foligno’s face when goals were scored? You could not miss the smile; you could hear his cheer. He was playing just how his dad told him. “He just said play with passion, you know, that’s what the Leafs’ fans love, and that’s what this team loves, and you know I think that’s something I can bring.”
Foligno referenced the 1993 video: The Passion Returns. It was the story of the Leafs 1992-93 playoff run that included his dad Mike. Nick wanted to bring that passion. Not only did he do that, but he did it while putting the team first and doing his job. There are players on the roster who could learn from Foligno’s opening night performance.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.