Foligno enjoys getting 'behind the scenes' look at Matthews-Marner magic
TORONTO — Nick Foligno expected there'd be certain adjustments he’d have to make upon joining the Maple Leafs. He just wasn’t prepared for all of them.
Granted, Foligno is still early in his Toronto tenure. He was traded from Columbus on April 11 after a nine-year stint with the Blue Jackets, and spent seven days in quarantine before joining the Leafs in Winnipeg last Wednesday.
The 33-year-old forward suited up right away, skating on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for two games against the Jets.
It was a whirlwind few days to say the least. But those on-ice changes weren't what initially had Foligno's head spinning.
“I've never had a second set of gear in the NHL. I'm still not quite comfortable with that,” Foligno said to reporters after practice on Tuesday. “I'm not really a picky guy, but I guess I'm probably driving the trainers nuts. I'm old school. I've had my same shoulder pads and shin pads from when I started. So I'm not really used to the new gear, and that has been an adjustment.”
Outside the equipment room, Foligno’s transition to Toronto has been pretty seamless.
The Leafs coveted the former Blue Jackets captain because of the leadership qualities he could bring on and off the ice, plus the impact he could make on a potential playoff run. Toronto was so determined to land Foligno that general manager Kyle Dubas parted with a first-round draft pick in 2021 and a pair of fourth-round picks (in 2021 and 2022) to get the trade done.
Foligno was barely settled before his first game but wanted to let his teammates know what the opportunity to play with them meant. That led Foligno to make an impassioned speech to the group before Thursday's contest got underway.
“It was just spur of the moment. It's not something I ever plan out,” Foligno said. “I don't really want to get into it, but I'm just excited to be with this [team]. I think everyone knows that, and I think we have a chance to do something special here, so I’m just making sure we take full advantage of the opportunity we have in front of us.”
The Leafs are 2-0 with Foligno in the lineup, and he’s registered a pair of assists.
But Foligno still calls his own game a “work in progress," and thinks he benefitted from consecutive practice days before Toronto heads back on the road to face Montreal on Wednesday.
The real treat to this point for Foligno has been lining up with Matthews and Marner, a tandem he’s gone up against in the past but didn’t fully appreciate.
“I love the way they see the game,” he said. “I think having conversations with them, how offensive-minded they are, how smart they are as players. It's evident every time you step on the ice against them, but to really hear how they [talk] or the way they look at the game, it's been fun to have that kind of behind-the-scenes look. So I'm enjoying that and just trying to bring my game along with them and getting that chemistry going.”
Matthews was just 18 the first time he played with Foligno, dressing for Team USA at the 2016 world championships. That familiarity has helped their line gel quickly, even when Foligno was jumping in cold from quarantine.
“He was shaking off a bit of the rust still in those two games in Winnipeg,” said Matthews. "These couple of [practice] days have been nice just to get even more accustomed with each other and mesh. He’s come in right away and he's playing a very important role on this team. He’s been around and he knows what he's doing. He's an easy guy to play with and we just try to make adjustments with each other and communicate out there.”
Foligno has found the Leafs’ structure fairly close to what the Blue Jackets liked to run. It’s really just the details that will make the biggest difference for him moving ahead.
“The way they play is fast here and a lot of transition and they get going quick,” he said. “So, it's just having that mindset of when I'm coming out of the zone or getting into the zone, where the spots are that I need to be that are maybe just a little bit different than what we had in Columbus. But luckily the overall mindset and systems are pretty similar and it's helped me a lot just adjust in that way.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe has liked the early returns from Foligno and his new-look top line, while acknowledging there’s room for growth.
“Defensively they've been really connected. That’s something I expected Nick to bring to that line,” Keefe said. “I think offensively, it's going to take a little bit of time for it to come together. But I think Auston and Mitch are going to be the drivers in that regard. And those guys are playing real well, so I think Nick will just find his place within that. He goes to the net really hard and he's done that consistently and he’s forechecking and creating loose pucks. I've been happy with what he's brought.”