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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Nick Foligno isn’t wasting more time.

The Maple Leafs’ prized trade-deadline acquisition endured his seven-day quarantine and was finally able to join his Toronto teammates in Winnipeg on Wednesday night. When Foligno makes his Leafs debut on Thursday, he’ll do it skating on the team’s top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. 

“Might as well jump right in, right?” Foligno joked on a Zoom call Thursday following the team’s morning skate. “I'm fortunate to play with any guy in that room. Wherever I'm asked to be, I'll do my best. I'm looking forward to just having some fun with these guys, starting off with them and hopefully we can get a big win tonight.”

Foligno met the media wearing a throwback Leafs hat gifted to him by dad, Mike. The family patriarch played for Toronto from 1990-93, and the two have houses next to each other in Sudbury, Ont., where Foligno served his period of isolation. 

The token from his father came with a reminder to Foligno of what he should be adding to the Leafs. 

“He just said play with passion, and I think that's something I can bring,” Foligno said. “You want your kid to have the best opportunity to play meaningful games, and right now I have that opportunity with a great team. Make the most of it, have a ton of fun and I think if you play with passion, all the other stuff falls into place.”

Toronto is counting on Foligno to be a game-changer. The Leafs traded a first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and a fourth-round pick in 2022 to Columbus for Foligno back on April 11. The deal also included shipping a 2021 fourth-round pick to San Jose for retaining 25 per cent of Foligno’s $5.5 million salary, and the Leafs got forward Stefan Noesen as part of that negotiation.

Noesen also joined the Leafs in Winnipeg, as did another trade deadline acquisition, Ben Hutton

Foligno was the focal point of Toronto’s deadline moves though, and he’s eager to start making an impact. It’s been nine years since Foligno played for an NHL team other than the Blue Jackets, but at least he has some past familiarity with Matthews. They were linemates for Team USA at the 2016 world championships, and Foligno hopes they can channel some of that same energy into Thursday’s game. 

“He dominated the worlds even then,” Foligno said of Matthews. “I just see the maturation of him and how he commands the game. He can turn it on a dime and play with his offensive abilities. I’m really thrilled to be back out there with him; had a lot of fun playing with him [before] and hopefully we can rekindle some of the magic. And obviously it won't hurt having Mitch Marner on the other side.”

Coach Sheldon Keefe decided to place Foligno on that line because he thought Matthews and Marner could use the boost. Normally Keefe would slide Zach Hyman on the line to get it rolling, but Hyman is out at least two weeks with a sprained MCL.

So Keefe is turning to Foligno, although he did first give the 33-year-old forward the option to ease into the lineup. 

“I did speak to him about the fact that if he's not feeling comfortable and he's not feeling ready he doesn't need to play tonight,” Keefe said. “But he wasn't hearing that. He's excited to play and acknowledged his job as a pro, regardless of the circumstances, is to be ready and play games. I don't think you need to say too much.”

So Foligno will dress Thursday night for his first game in exactly two weeks. Given the long layoff, he’s not expecting too much of himself but would like to make his presence felt.

Foligno notched just seven goals and 16 points in 42 games with a struggling Blue Jackets club this season. Alongside Matthews and Marner, Foligno’s focus will be elevating their games as opposed to racking up points. 

“What I bring is that physical presence, nothing flashy,” Foligno said. “I'm able to play on the offensive side of it, but just being a steady presence out there and hoping to help. I'm not expecting to jump in and start dangling, but I do want to contribute on the other side where you're hard to play against. Just play a hard style of game, chip in where I can, not expect too much of myself and all the while knowing that I have full confidence in being able to help this team.”

The Leafs could certainly use a hand. They’re going into Winnipeg mired in a season-long five-game winless streak after dropping a pair to Vancouver. Only four points separate Toronto from the Jets atop the North Division standings, and the Jets have a game in hand.  

Jack Campbell will be tapped for the start on Thursday, going opposite Connor Hellebuyck for the Jets. The Leafs netminder has been going through rough stretch of his own lately. Campbell was pulled for allowing three goals on six shots to the Jets on April 15, just one of three straight losses he’s suffered since setting an NHL record with 11 straight wins to start the season. 

But Keefe is confident in going back to Campbell because of how he’s previously fared in Winnipeg. When Toronto visited for a two-game stint three weeks ago, Campbell posted consecutive wins while giving up just two goals against. 

“Last time we were here, Jack was unbelievable,” Keefe said. “So, we're living in that headspace and we want to give him an opportunity here today to get back in the net.”

Keefe did not have an updated timetable on defenceman Zach Bogosian, who left Tuesday’s game with an injury after going hard into the boards. All Keefe could say was that Bogosian would miss “more than a week,” meaning Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin will combine on Toronto’s third pairing. 

Winger Ilya Mikheyev, who missed Tuesday’s game with an undisclosed injury, was a full participant in morning skate on Thursday but remains a game-time decision. 

The one thing the Leafs can count on though is an inspired Foligno out on the ice, ready to make the most of a 10-game push towards the postseason. 

“I think I'll be playing off adrenaline more than anything tonight and I'm looking forward to being out there,” he said. “I think I was able to stay in somewhat decent shape [during quarantine]. Obviously nothing ever mimics being on the ice and I'm sure it'll take me a little while, but short shifts tonight and I'm just going to have fun with it.”​