Maple Leafs continue roster evolution with Foligno trade

Elliotte Friedman joins Martine Gaillard on Sportsnet Central to break down the impact of the Toronto Maple Leafs trades, acquiring Nick Foligno and David Rittich.

TORONTO — Fans of a certain vintage will remember Nick Foligno’s father, Mike, scoring an overtime goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their unexpected run to the conference final in 1993.

Kyle Dubas and his staff saw first-hand how well Nick performed for the Columbus Blue Jackets while eliminating the Leafs from the NHL bubble in August.

And now that son is following his father — green-lighting a trade to Toronto on Sunday night — everyone involved is hoping some history will be repeated… and made.

“Everything just felt right,” Foligno said. “I’m a guy that plays off my gut, my heart. And my heart was telling me that this was the right move. I went with it and I can tell you from when I said that this is something I wanted to do, it just felt right.”

Foligno will likely be the Leafs’ big addition ahead of this trade deadline, arriving at the cost of a late first-round draft pick and two fourth-round selections. The price was so high because Dubas involved a third-party broker in San Jose to acquire the defensive-minded winger at 25 per cent of his remaining cap hit.

What it didn’t do is remove anyone from the roster of the NHL’s third-best team by points percentage, nor any of the organization’s top prospects.

Dubas has spent the better part of a month searching out a specific upgrade — a left-winger to skate alongside John Tavares and William Nylander on the second line. It loomed as a big hole while a makeshift list of internal candidates cycled through the open spot and the trio failed to gain traction, particularly because the team’s top-heavy roster is designed to overwhelm opponents with its talent and depth.

Foligno is an interesting choice, particularly since Taylor Hall was still available in Buffalo at that time.

He brings strong defensive metrics, kills penalties and isn’t a high-end finisher or play-driver like many of his new teammates. At 33, he’s a veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games who is still willing to play with an edge and even drop the gloves occasionally. And like Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds, he’s a high-character player joining the Leafs hoping to get his hands on the Stanley Cup for the first time.

“I’m looking forward to joining that,” said Foligno, who will wear No. 71 just like his father did in Toronto. “I think it lines up mentally with where I’m at and what I feel is necessary to win hockey games.”

This acquisition continues an evolution of the Leafs roster that started after last summer’s five-game loss to Columbus. They scored just three even-strength goals in that series and Foligno soaked up big defensive minutes against Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, Zach Hyman and Tavares at 5-on-5 without being on the ice for one against.

The Blue Jackets held an edge in shots, 41-40, and a 4-0 lead in goals during Foligno’s 80 minutes of ice time in that series. But the Leafs earned his respect.

“In playing them last year in the bubble and just seeing the team — how young they were, but also just how dangerous they were — and I felt like they were a team that learned a lot about themselves,” Foligno said.

Squeezed by a tight cap position and with a desire to change the makeup of his group, Dubas dealt away middle-six forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson in the off-season while going bargain shopping up front. It was a rebalancing of how the money was spent, but it left the Leafs looking to replace some of what was lost ahead of Monday’s deadline.

“In the summer we had to move out some forwards that were good forwards for us in order to add on the back end and thus we feel like that’s an area where we may want to look at a little bit more,” Dubas told reporters last month.

He unloaded a meaningful number of futures to complete this trade — a sign of how heavily Foligno was pursued in the marketplace. But the Leafs are in a win-now frame of mind and they needed Columbus to retain 50 per cent of Foligno’s $5.5-million cap hit before the Sharks retained an additional 50 per cent.

Adding a player like Foligno for $1.375-million on the cap came at a premium because you’d never be able to do it through free agency.

It also left the Leafs with enough wiggle room to add goaltender David Rittich (at 50 per cent of his cap hit) in a later trade with Calgary while preserving space to continue shopping for more depth before 3 p.m. ET on Monday.

Barring something completely unforeseen, this was Dubas’s big swing. The 2021 first-round pick he sent to Columbus is likely to fall somewhere between 25th and 31st overall in an unpredictable draft where many prospects have barely played, and the fourth-rounders sent to the Blue Jackets and Sharks are lottery tickets he can afford to part with while trying to get his group over the top.

Foligno is a pending unrestricted free agent who is likely to head straight back to Columbus in July — “yeah that’s always open,” he said — so his impact on the Leafs will be measured by the 10 or so regular-season games he plays after entering Canada and serving a seven-day quarantine and whatever happens in the playoffs.

There’s risk baked-in to any rental trade, but he was exactly what the Leafs were looking for in this uncertain financial climate.

“Usually you’d put a premium on getting a player that has future years [under contract],” Dubas said. “It’s a little bit more complex this year knowing that very likely it’s going to be at $81.5[-million] again, the cap.

“So it’s a rare time where probably a rental is the better fit.”

Foligno is a known quantity in these parts and he’s got a chance to add a special chapter to his family’s story here.

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