1
Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Finding a spot in the lineup for Nick Foligno

The question of where Nick Foligno plays seems like it would have been a lot harder to answer before Alex Edler went knee hunting on Zach Hyman, so the easy answer seems to be, he’ll go where Hyman was, and that’s that.

Well, if you are happy with that answer, thanks for reading, please click on a few ads on your way out.

If you are looking for a more detailed exploration that probably leads you around to a similar conclusion, strap in. We’re going for it.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

First, it’s important to note that today is the last day of Foligno’s quarantine from the Leafs. He will not be in the lineup against the Canucks, but he is a virtual lock to be in against the Jets on Thursday. That first game might even be a bit of a tease as the Leafs could be easing him back in to playing after his quarantine and his injury that kept him out of his final games for Columbus. In short, don’t count on him riding shotgun with Matthews and Marner…yet.

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Canucks, the Leafs were rolling

Galchenyuk-Matthews-Marner
Robertson-Tavares-Nylander
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman
Simmonds-Thornton-Spezza

The absence of Hyman in the short term means that Adam Brooks comes in on the fourth line and Simmonds moves up to Hyman’s spot. If Nylander is pulled out, that’s going to make things especially interesting, but none of this matters in the context of Foligno anyway, other than the Leafs might wish to further send a message to William Nylander by bumping him down a line. I doubt it, but I throw it out there anyway because the purpose of this exercise is to consider that pretty much everything in the lineup is fair game at this point beyond the spots assigned to Matthews, Marner, and Tavares.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Without factoring in what’s best for the Leafs, we’ll first start to establish where the best potential fit is for Nick Foligno. Foligno has seen his offense drop off over the past four seasons. He’s not as offensively capable as Zach Hyman, and his outputs are fairly similar to Alex Galchenyuk’s, although higher this season if you include Galchenyuk’s time with the Senators. It is also worth noting that Foligno’s steady offensive decline coincides with being used in increasingly defensive situations by John Tortorella. It is entirely possible that there is more offense that can be tapped into, and putting him with Tavares might help feed into that offense. Foligno with Tavares gives the second line 2/3rds of the unit having some defensive responsibility, and what William Nylander lacks in defensive play, he makes up for being the premiere puck carrier of the group, and that’s an important skill to blend with this unit that could see the oppositions top line regularly throughout the playoffs.

Now, playing in the top six, having a chance to utilize his full game, that sounds optimal for Foligno. The thing is that Hyman is the better offensive talent, and should probably have that role when he returns. The case can be made that Foligno’s left shot is more useful. Or that Hyman can generate his own offence better and can thrive being separated, or that they both should have top six roles and Alex Galchenyuk will be the poor soul getting the boot down to the bottom six, but Foligno alongside Tavares seems like the logical starting place, and the one that the Leafs can see if it can stick heading into the playoffs.

Before committing to that, there’s something to be said for looking at the third line situation. And with that, a couple of considerations. What does it look like if the Leafs decide to keep Robertson up with Tavares and Nylander, creating a situation where Foligno and Hyman would be on the third line together. Or what does it look like with Hyman moved up to the second line and Robertson needs a new home?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

A Foligno-Kerfoot-Hyman line looks pretty darn good, but one that leads to wondering about the absence of Ilya Mikheyev , who is probably more deserving of 3rd line responsibilities than Kerfoot, but is also going to be spending some time recovering from an injury in the early days of Foligno’s tenure as a Leaf. Foligno is a few years removed from playing center, and needs to be considered a winger, (just like Kerfoot should be), but the option of having either Spezza, Thornton, or Engvall as the 3rd line center there isn’t particularly appealing. Now, when Riley Nash is healed up, that’s a potential third line worth rolling, and one that the Leafs can trust to make offense disappear.

Now, assuming that Hyman isn’t sticking around the third line, a Foligno-Kerfoot-Mikheyev line seems like it is abandoning some of Foligno’s offensive gifts, and thrusting him back into an exclusively defensive role. This might be fine, but much like when the Leafs attempt put Wayne Simmonds on this line instead of Hyman, the Leafs are foregoing the puck possession benefits, and just relying on the checking aspect of his game. Foligno is obviously a more capable player than Simmonds at this point in their careers, but there is still some concern that it’s not a natural fit for the style of hockey of the other two forwards. Again, taking a look at the potential for a Foligno-Mikheyev line with the potential arrival of Riley Nash, and all of a sudden that looks like a very capable shutdown line.

What about the fourth line and beyond?

The most interesting part of the arrival of Foligno, and to a large extent Riley Nash as well, is the impact it will have on who comes out of the roster. Foligno in all likelihood joins Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Hyman as the six roster locks when they are healthy. Other players like Kerfoot and Mikheyev seem to enjoy the complete confidence of Sheldon Keefe and like I mentioned previously, Riley Nash is likely in come playoff time as well, although likely in a fourth line role initially until he gets his bearings on the Leafs. That leaves Galchenyuk, Spezza, Thornton, Simmonds, Engvall, and Robertson fighting for the last three spots, with a strong possibility that Galchenyuk is also a lock given his solid play in the top six to date.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Assuming that Engvall and Robertson are drawing the short straws, that’s still Spezza, Thornton, and Simmonds fighting for the last two spots, and while it will be a tough decision, it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t exactly how Kyle Dubas drew up his plan.

Since nobody asked…

It feels like this exercise needs to end with a couple of potential line combination projections. Heading into Thursday’s game against the Jets, I’d assume the Leafs are looking at something like this:

Galchenyuk-Matthews-Marner
Foligno-Tavares-Nylander
Kerfoot-Engvall-Simmonds
Robertson-Thornton-Spezza

With Hyman, Nash, and Mikheyev out, a potential third line is recovering.

Going into the playoffs, I wouldn’t be surprised if the optimal Leafs lines end up here:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Foligno-Tavares-Nylander
Kerfoot-Nash-Mikheyev
Galchenyuk-Thornton-Spezza

The assumption here is that Simmonds would come in when the Leafs are looking for additional toughness, Engvall comes if more defensive responsibility is needed, and Robertson is becomes more of a true injury depth option. Galchenyuk would potentially see some offensive zone starts in place of Hyman or Foligno, or offset their penalty kill usage.

So going back to where we started, it’s not so much about Foligno replacing Hyman as it is about putting Foligno into the spot that he’ll most likely play in for his time as a Leaf. While it seemed like a potentially good idea to put the two defensively minded acquisitions from the Blue Jackets together, it’s worth noting that at 5v5, Nash and Foligno have only played 128 minutes together over the past two seasons and have a 40.58 CF% and 39.44 xGF%. They did see time together on the penalty kill, although Foligno primarily played with Boone Jenner, but that could be a more fitting reunion.

My personal takeaway from looking at the Leafs lineup is that the top six can benefit from Foligno and that’s where he belongs, over attempting to create something different on the third line. Integrating Hyman and Foligno into top six roles for the playoffs gets the most out of the lines you want on the ice for the majority of the game, and cuts down on the line matching that tends to be as self defeating as it is preventative. With the push back of the regular season to May 19th, the Leafs have additional time to find the ideal fit for Foligno, but right now I’d halt the Nick Robertson experiment in favour of what will likely benefit the Leafs the most in the playoffs.