Wild: Foligno Provides Tremendous Value on Both Ends of the Ice

Marcus Foligno has never shied away from his defensive responsibilities with the Minnesota Wild. Since he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres before the 2017-18 season, Foligno has been relied upon to match up against his opponent’s best, kill penalties, and take the occasional key faceoff. As expected, his level of play has continued, but to everyone’s surprise, the typically low-scoring Buffalo-native has caught fire and is on track to set new career-highs in several major categories despite playing the same amount of minutes.

Through the first 21 games of the season, Foligno has scored seven goals and 15 points. His pace of 1.41 goals scored per 60 and 2.82 points per 60 at even-strength (5v5) rank in the top four on the team. This is a significant leap from last year’s rate and is a big reason why the Wild sports one of the most consistently dangerous offenses. Minnesota slots in the top three in terms of goals scored per 60 minutes of play and expected goals generated per 60 at 5v5, per Natural Stat Trick. Essentially, the traditionally defensive squad is recalibrating perceptions of their style of play with help from unlikely skaters like Foligno.

Columbus Blue Jackets Zach Werenski Minnesota Wild Marcus Foligno
Minnesota Wild’s Marcus Foligno battles for the puck. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

It’s been an interesting first few months for Minnesota, but especially for Foligno. The gritty forward is en route towards the best year of his career. However, when you look at his numbers closely, he’s hasn’t changed much of his game. Last season, he recorded 6.66 shots per 60 and 12:12 of time on ice at 5v5. When you compare that pace to this season’s rate of 4.5 S/60 and 12:08 in time on ice at 5v5, you’ll notice a decrease in shot contribution but not much else. Overall, this could mean several things, but the most likely scenario is that he and his teammates are doing a great job of generating quality scoring chances and turning them into goals.

Goals Are Temporary, Defense Is Forever

That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration on my part. But judging by his play this season and the data from previous campaigns, we can assume that Foligno will continue to excel defensively. The boost in the team’s overall offense has been a pleasant surprise, but it’s unlikely he and the rest of his Minnesota Wild teammates are going to keep shooting at this clip. Foligno is converting shots into goals at over 30% while also maintaining a hefty 14.9% on-ice shooting percentage. And even though it’s possible that his “puck luck” will continue, the fact that he is taking fewer shots on average this season signals that he could be heading towards a sharp regression.

Still, there is plenty of value to his game that doesn’t involve the offensive zone. Over his decade-long career, the hard-checking winger has done a fantastic job of limiting the opposition’s best. During the last two seasons, Foligno has cataloged in the top four of all the Wild’s forwards in ice time against “elite” competition, per Puck IQ. In addition to taking on tough matchups on a nightly basis at 5v5, he has logged a bunch of minutes on the penalty kill. From 2019-21, he’s averaged 1:47 of ice time which ranks 3rd on a team that sports a top-10 penalty kill percentage.

Foligno is constantly being asked to take on tough defensive assignments but still finds ways to flourish in them. Even though he is often shelled with disadvantageous zone starts, he’s able to set the tone when he’s on the ice. Of all the eligible skaters who played the past two seasons in Minnesota, he slots in the top two in expected goals for percentage (56.86%) and expected goals against per 60 (1.63). This is remarkably impressive and is the main reason why the team is considered to have one of the top defenses in the NHL. For a little more context, take a look at Foligno’s isolated impact chart compiled HockeyViz:

Marcus Foligno, Minnesota Wild
Marcus Foligno isolated impact chart 2020-21 (Courtesy HockeyViz)

As you can see, Foligno excels at limiting quality scoring chances, especially in and around the crease. He uses his big body and wide frame to clear space in the slot and around the boards. On top of this, his strong edges and surprisingly shifty stick skills allow him to push opponents off the puck and make plays after retrieving it. Basically, not only is he trusted to shut down the best skaters in the NHL at 5v5 and on special teams, but his strong defensive play translates into a ton of offensive chances for himself and his teammates.

Worth Sticking Around For

Foligno might not rack up a ton of minutes overall, but when he does, he makes a huge difference. He understands his role and makes the most of the opportunities. It’s been an eventful first half of the season with some major highs and some serious lows, but there were a few consistent factors, including the play of the former Sudbury Wolf. This level of consistency is hard to come by, and the Wild seem to understand this. During the offseason, Minnesota and Foligno worked out a 3-year extension that carries a $3.1 million AAV. It doesn’t kick in until after this shortened season, but the team felt comfortable locking up so they could focus on other matters.

Now, some may argue that committing a moderate amount of cap space and term to a soon-to-be 30-year-old isn’t the best look for a front office. Nevertheless, Foligno is not just a replacement-level player who the Wild could afford to lose in free agency. In his time in the State of Hockey, he’s shown that his hard-nosed yet methodical style of play blends perfectly on this Wild squad. And even though his recent scoring surge doesn’t appear to be sustainable, the fact that he’s able to generate that much offense at all, given the minutes he plays, is impressive. Skaters of his caliber and specific skill set are hard to come by in today’s NHL, which is why general manager Bill Guerin had no problem keeping him around at ridiculously good value.