At last season's trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs' big addition was bringing in Nick Foligno from the Columbus Blue Jackets, sending a first-round pick back as the primary return. It may have been a bit rich for a rental player, but the 33-year-old brought experience, versatility to play either centre or wing, defensive responsibility and the kind of sandpaper the team had lacked in past playoff disappointments.
Of course, it didn't lead to a fairy-tale ending. Foligno started strong enough, recording an assist in each of his first four games with Toronto. Then a back injury slowed him down and forced him out of the lineup — Foligno played just four of the seven playoff games against the Montreal Canadiens and saw just 11:45 of ice time in the Game 7 loss that ended their season.
"My biggest disappointment is we didn't get the job done and I unfortunately got hurt," Foligno told Good Show on Thursday. "Regardless of what Leafs fans think of me, I'm way harder on myself, so the fact I couldn't perform to the abilities that I felt I was early on killed me inside and it's something I will regret forever probably that I couldn't come there and be the player I expected to be.
"I loved every minute of my time in Toronto and I think that's the bittersweet part."
Foligno was a force in Columbus' qualifying-round defeat of Toronto in the 2020 bubble and the hope was he'd bring that same energy and impact to the Leafs' 2021 playoff run. And while those first few games grew confidence that he was the right addition, the back injury he sustained in early May significantly impacted his ability to perform.
The Leafs didn't get the best playoff version of Foligno for that reason alone.
"I was just dealing with a really bad back injury that was debilitating," Foligno said. "There was nerve pain. Shut down my whole right leg. It was really disappointing that happened at the time it happened. Anything else you can play through a lot of times. This I couldn't. I tried and I just couldn't be the player — I like to hit and forecheck and do the things necessary in order to win the hard minutes of the game. So when that kind of got taken away now I had to rely more on my positional play and trying not to hurt the team, instead of trying to help the team it felt like. That bothered me a lot as a player just because I knew I could give more, I just physically couldn't."
Foligno had one assist, and one fight, in four playoff games, but even after they were eliminated there was some hope from the fanbase he'd stick around for another run and re-sign with the team in the summer. After all, it seemed like a great fit. Foligno's dad played for Toronto in the '90s, and at Nick's introductory press conference he wore a Leafs baseball cap from that era and talked about a desire to bring the same energy back to the city that he witnessed as a kid when the Leafs went to the conference final.
If he didn't return to Toronto, the thought was that he may simply return to Columbus where he had played for nine years, or perhaps join the Minnesota Wild to play with his brother Marcus. So when Nick signed a two-year deal with a $3.8-million cap hit to join the rival Boston Bruins, it was one of the more undesirable outcomes for Leafs fans. The teams will be back in the same division this season, so the Leafs will see more of a now-healthy Foligno on a team that has had their number in the playoffs.
Foligno discussed the decision to leave Toronto for Boston, saying it was about a combination of factors including contract term, dollars and team fit. But he spoke highly of his time with the Leafs and the players in the dressing room, who will now spend the coming season answering for and trying to overcome the latest playoff disappointment.
"I have nothing but great things to say about that time. That's why it stung so much," Foligno said. "I'm sure the fanbase feels it just like we do. That's a group that really felt like they were ready — we were ready — to take another step. We didn't get it done and that's on us and now they're looking to make amends on that. It's a really good group of guys and a team I feel priveledged to have played with."