TORONTO — The Maple Leafs are all in.
That’s the message general manager Kyle Dubas sent on Sunday, acquiring forward Nick Foligno from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and a fourth-round pick in 2022. Forward Stefan Noesen was also part of the trade.
It’s a high price to pay for the 33-year-old Foligno, a pending unrestricted free agent who has just seven goals and 16 points in 42 games this season. But he checks the boxes Dubas was looking to fill ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline, adding veteran leadership and top-nine depth to the team’s forward group.
"Everything just felt right,” Foligno told reporters on a Zoom call Sunday night. “I’m a guy that plays off my gut, my heart. My heart was telling me this was the right move, so I went with it. I can tell you from when I said this is something I wanted to do, it just felt right. I’m really looking forward to just getting there and getting acquainted with everything and then hitting the ground running and helping in any way I can.”
Toronto couldn’t make the money in the deal work without enlisting San Jose as an intermediary.
First, Columbus moved Foligno to the Sharks and agreed to retain 50 per cent of his $5.5 million contract in that deal. The Sharks then flipped Foligno and Noesen to the Leafs for a fourth-round pick in 2021, and retained an additional 25 per cent of Foligno’s salary. That leaves Toronto on the hook for $1.375 million of Foligno’s contract.
The final piece was Foligno’s decision to waive his no-movement clause. Having captained the Blue Jackets since 2015, it wasn’t an easy choice to say goodbye. But with Columbus sitting well outside the playoff picture and Toronto atop the NHL standings, Foligno couldn’t ignore the opportunity.
Consistent with the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, Foligno will have to serve a seven-day quarantine before he can officially join the Leafs. Given the present situation surrounding the virus in Ontario, Foligno will also be leaving his wife and young family behind in Ohio for the foreseeable future.
That added to the “bittersweet” nature of Foligno’s departure from Columbus after nine seasons, but he hopes chasing a Stanley Cup with the Leafs will make it worthwhile.
“It was an emotional couple days,” Foligno said. “I have the utmost respect for [Blue Jackets general manager] Jarmo [Kekalainen] and how he brought this to my attention. It always comes down to what's best for the team but he was able to fill me in on some things and see where I was headed and it just fell into place and it worked out to come to Toronto. It's pretty exciting, once you've made the decision, but it’s a hard day with all the emotion attached to Columbus.”
Drafted in the first round, 28th overall, by Ottawa in 2006, Foligno has spent the bulk of his 14-year career with the Blue Jackets. He’s hit the 30-goal mark only once, back in 2014-15, and has tallied 482 points in 950 career games. Foligno has also appeared in 51 postseason contests, scoring nine goals and 22 points.
The Leafs will be counting on Foligno to help them make a long playoff run, which is ironic consider how Columbus made Toronto’s postseason achingly short last summer.
The team teams met in a best-of-five qualifying round series in the NHL’s bubble and the Blue Jackets came out on top. Foligno even scored the empty-netter in Game 5 that ensured Columbus’ victory.
Despite how Toronto ended that series – being shut out 3-0 – Foligno could see they were a club on the rise. That stuck in his head when the prospect of Sunday’s trade began materializing over the weekend.
“In the bubble, just seeing the team and how young they were but also how dangerous they were, I felt like they learned a lot about themselves,” Foligno said. “Now they just seem to hunker down or find ways to win games and I think that's always the sign of good teams in this league, is you find a way to win. I just felt like it was a fit for me in the sense of just what I can bring and help [with].”
Foligno hesitated to weigh in on where he might fit in the Leafs’ lineup, but the forward left no doubt about what kind of energy he intends to bring with him.
“The biggest thing I'm going to do is just be myself,” he said. "I'm older now. I know what I bring and that's the reason why the team brought me in. I’m comfortable with [the leadership side] but there's a lot of great leaders in that room already, so I'm just there to pull on the rope the same way as all those guys are and I think that's the way they trust you, when you come in and just work away at it and that's my mentality anyway.”
When Foligno does take the ice in Toronto, he’ll do so wearing No. 71, the same number his father, Mike, wore while playing for the Leafs from 1990 to 1993. Mike played 129 games for Toronto, and was part of the team that went to the Eastern Conference Final in 1992-93.
It was in overtime of Game 6 of that series against Los Angeles that the Leafs endured the infamous no-call from referee Kerry Fraser on a high-stick by Wayne Gretzky to Doug Gilmour, opening the door for the Kings to eliminate Toronto in Game 7.
Foligno still remembers the aftermath of that loss, but is proud to carry on the family tradition in Toronto.
“I'm not a big fan of Kerry Fraser after that,” Foligno joked. “My dad talks about that to this day, and [that run] is ingrained into that city. I’m looking forward to going on another one, and being the next Foligno to do so and joining a great team that has already done a lot of work to get in a position to be talked about in that way…as a team that can that can do some damage in the playoffs.”
Foligno already knows a few of the faces he’ll find in Toronto, including Jason Spezza, John Tavares and Auston Matthews. Several teammates reached out after news of the trade broke, and Foligno was reassured that he picked the right landing spot.
“You can tell how focused that group is on trying to win and the task at hand,” he said. “I think it lines up mentally with where I'm at and what I feel is necessary to win hockey games, so I'm looking forward to joining a team that feels that way and has that same mindset. I'm looking forward to pushing and learning and get going in the direction that we all expect it to go.”
By playoff time, Foligno will also see his old Columbus teammate Riley Nash in the Leafs’ room. Dubas acquired the veteran centre in another deal with the Blue Jackets on Friday, which actually opened the door for Foligno to come aboard. Because Nash is out four to six weeks with a knee injury, Toronto moved him and Frederik Andersen (lower body) to Long-Term Injured Reserve to free up $2.7 million in space.
What matters now for Foligno is making good on the chance he’ll be given with the Leafs, especially knowing how hard those are to come by.
“It's been a tough year here in Columbus and I take a lot of that responsibility,” he said. “So, this is an opportunity that I get that I'm not going to waste. For those guys in that locker room that are still here that are grinding away, I take it pretty serious. I get a chance to go in and continue playing here and have an opportunity and that means a lot to me. I'm not going to waste it.”
**Note: The Toronto Maple Leafs later announced the acquisition of goaltender David Rittich from the Calgary Flames in exchange for a 2022 third round pick.