As with all hockey trades, this one can be described as bittersweet. But let’s be honest: From the perspective of the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s Mexican Coke.
When likable, young, middle-of-the-pack Columbus snatched Brandon Saad from the world champions the day before NHL free agency opened, it may not have marked the biggest trade of the 2015 NHL off-season, but it was certainly the most surprising.
Just weeks earlier, Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had vowed before a standing-room-only audience of reporters at the Stanley Cup Final that he would be making changes, but assured the club’s future would be safe in the hands of two players: 20-year-old forward Teuvo Teravainen and the 22-year-old Saad.
In a cap-relief transaction, Bowman dealt away the most talented young forward no one knew was available in a seven-piece move that saw Columbus give up forwards Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp.
But there’s no debate which team landed the best player. Columbus wasted no time locking up Saad, a restricted free agent, for six years, leaving a small-market dressing room positively giddy.
“I was really, really happy. The organization is making a statement about what type of team we want to be, how serious we are about winning. You bring in a player like Brandon Saad, who’s won two Cups already, it’s a big statement,” captain Nick Foligno told us this week at the Smile Zone Foundation golf tournament in Milton, Ont.
“It’s sad because you lose a few friends, but it’s a huge pickup for us. He’s an unbelievable talent, and a young player at that. You’ll get a lot great years out of a player like him. Another guy—they bring in [former Boston Bruins centre] Gregory Campbell, who’s already won a Cup. They’re really pushing for us to become the team we know we can be.”
Foligno, 27, phoned both Saad and Campbell as soon as they joined. The Columbus room, which features 10 guys 25 or younger and none over age 33, is a tight group of friends. Foligno wanted Saad and Campbell to establish a connection right away.
“They were really receptive and eager to come, and it’s going to make a huge difference come training camp when they feel that way already and can start helping us win games,” said Foligno, who’s still getting used to the whole captaincy thing. “I’m looking forward to leading by committee. We have a lot of great guys there. That’s going to allow me to take it as I go, not get too overwhelmed, and have a lot of fun with it.”
Saad is coming off his best season with career highs in goals (23), assists (29), and playoff goals (eight). So too is Foligno with his own career highs in goals (31), assists (42) and a plus-16 rating. Foligno also captained one of the league’s sides at the All-Star Game.
Foligno says it’s no coincidence that his best year as a pro was also his first full season as a dad. Eighteen-month-old daughter Milana, whose life was saved by a seven-hour experimental heart surgery, is keeping Nick and his wife very busy this summer in Sudbury, Ont. The winger credits Milana with his breakout season.
“As you get older and start to have a family, you realize, ‘This is a job that can provide a lot of great things for my family.’ That’s the mentality I took. It was growing up and understanding this was an opportunity for me to be a leader in my family, and I think I took it all seriously,” Foligno says.
“It all fell into place, and I was able to have a great year. I’m looking forward to being that kind of player for this team for a long time.”
Foligno’s confidence is convincing. Before speaking with him, we gave Columbus the best chance of 2015’s non-playoff teams to leap back into the post-season next year.
“Absolutely. That’s our goal. That’s all we’re thinking about,” Foligno says. “That’s the biggest thing—the focus has to be on that, and the guys are ready for it.”
The Saad deal helps their cause, but Foligno suspects the deal may not have taken place were it not for the Blue Jackets’ season-ending run. Those so-called “meaningless” game were anything but.
“We sat down and said, ‘You know what? This year is just not our year, in the sense of injuries and unforeseen things that have gone on. But what better way to go out than to play the right way? And carry that momentum and feel good about ourselves and really give the team a chance to see what we can do,” he says.
Despite being long cropped out of the playoff picture, the Jackets won 15 of their last 17 games. Among the clubs laid to waste in that span? Playoff-bound Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Vancouver, New York Islanders (twice), Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Calgary.
Had Columbus not finished so wonderfully, Foligno wonders if the front office would have been selling and not buying come June.
“The organization was pleasantly surprised, and you didn’t see a lot of moves because [management realized], ‘Wow, this is a good team.’ That was on us. We felt like, no, no. Wait till we get healthy and see what we can do,” Foligno says.
“It was important for us because we’re a tight-knit group. We wanted to show that. Then you saw at the end of the season the type of team we can be. We just gotta stay healthy. The organization ran with that, we added pieces, and we’re excited for the start of the season.”