When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded for Nick Foligno, he had his sights set on greatness.
It truly looked like the Leafs were geared up to finally break that ever so prevalent first-round curse that’s been chomping at their ankles since 2016-17. Auston Matthews had just won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy by a whopping eight goals above the runner-up. Matthews and Mitch Marner both finished top five in league scoring. Jack Campbell was posting elite numbers between the pipes. And they finally had a lineup that, seemingly, didn’t have any glaring holes to fill.
Foligno wanted a cup. He said it himself. And to start, things looked great. He had four points in his first five games with the Leafs, and his energy and leadership quickly made a mark in the Leafs’ dressing room.
Then, in an overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on May 3, he aggravated a lower-body injury that saw him miss two regular-season games. He returned against the Ottawa Senators for the second to last game of the season before being forced to miss games three, four, and five against the Habs.
We all know how that series ended for the Leafs, so we won’t talk too much more about it. Nonetheless, Foligno finished his stint with the Maple Leafs in 2020-21 with four assists in seven regular-season games and one assist in four playoff games.
What Could Have Been
It’s obviously tough to think about how Foligno’s time in Toronto went when you consider what they gave up for him. Despite the 2021 NHL draft class being rather weak, giving up a first-round pick and two fourth-round picks for an aging winger with a $5.5 million average annual value (AAV) seemed like a super steep price. Especially when the Boston Bruins were able to snag Taylor Hall from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a second-round pick and Anders Bjork.
But there was more to this trade than what meets the eye. First of all, using the San Jose Sharks as a third party, the Leafs were able to get Foligno with 75 percent of his salary retained (50 percent by Columbus, 25 percent by San Jose), meaning they would only be paying for $2.5 million of his cap hit.
And then you have to consider what adding Foligno into the mix could have done for that team. Had he been fully healthy and had the Leafs not folded like a cheap lawn chair when the stakes were higher than they had been all season, a first-round pick for a player who vastly improved the penalty kill and literally captained the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the previous year, could have ended up feeling like nothing.
For instance, take Game 1 when he fought Corey Perry following the injury to John Tavares. You can say what you want about whether or not that knee to the head was intentional. I personally don’t believe it was, but the fact that he had the initiative to stand up for his teammates and send a message that he has their backs speaks volumes about the type of character he brings to the locker room.
But, unfortunately, fate doesn’t always play out exactly how you expect it to. I doubt Kyle Dubas would have given up what he did for Foligno if he wasn’t expecting his team to make a deep playoff run. Or, at least, to get out of the first round.
Could Foligno Be Interested in a Return?
If the Leafs had won the Stanley Cup this season or, at the very least, made a respectable run, there is no doubt in my mind that Foligno would have returned to Columbus without a second thought. He is loved across the Jackets organization and the city of Columbus in general, his family is comfortable with the situation, and his kids are growing up there. The only reason he ended up getting traded was that Columbus was nowhere near contention and Foligno has still yet to win a Cup.
But, according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, Foligno is interested in a return to Toronto. Simmons said, “Rental Nick Foligno apparently wants to stay with the Leafs. That’s what he’s telling people. If the team can’t sign Zach Hyman, which is likely, maybe they can afford Foligno.” (From “SIMMONS: There’s much more to an NHL GM’s job than signing players, The Toronto Sun, 6/13/21).
And why wouldn’t he be? I’ve maintained this thought ever since the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs. The team never truly saw the version of Foligno they traded three draft picks for. Sure, he looked good in his first couple of games, but for the better part of his time in Toronto, he was fighting that nagging lower-body injury, and it showed in his performance on the ice. With the Sudbury native’s contract expiring this summer, he is going to have options. And between Columbus and Toronto, I can’t really think of another team he would want to play for at this point, aside from maybe entertaining the thought of playing alongside his brother in Minnesota.
But if he wants to win a Cup, realistically, his best chance to do it is in Toronto. All championship drought and playoff-choking jokes aside, Toronto presents him with better odds to win a Cup than Columbus does. And after the way his 2020-21 season ended, I have a hard time believing he’s satisfied with the way things played out.
If the Opportunity Is There, Bring Him Back
It’s safe to say the Leafs’ roster is going to look much different next year. There are rumblings that pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Zach Hyman‘s time in Toronto might be up, and if he leaves, that leaves the left side looking very thin.
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If the Leafs were to bring Foligno back, you would have to imagine it would be at a discounted price and to fill in a bottom-six role. Maybe middle-six at best. And if they have an opportunity to bring back a veteran who has that element of resilience the team has lacked down the stretch for so long, who can put up between 30 and 40 points and provide a gritty, never-give-up kind of game to influence the rest of the team, I don’t think there’s any reason for them to decline it, especially if he can stay healthy for the better part of the season.
To add to this, it would also help justify paying the price of a first-round pick for Foligno. I will still maintain the fact that, while steep, the cost was worth it at the time. But having said that, it will still look tough on Dubas if all he has to show for that price is eleven games and five assists.
Foligno is the type of player that influences the guys around him for the better. And the Leafs need that more than anything next year. If they can manage to get him at a price of $3 million or less on a short-term deal, there’s no reason they shouldn’t pursue it. Because you know he’s still hungry to take home the first Cup of his career. Perhaps as hungry as the Leafs are to do it themselves.
And as we’ve seen from the Canadiens throughout these playoffs, in the end, you don’t need to have the most skilled players or the best looking team on paper. You just have to want it. And nobody wants it more than Foligno.
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.