Aside from talk of Auston Matthews’ and Mitch Marner’s usage, or John Tavares’s quiet defensive progression, there’s one thing Sheldon Keefe has been linked to: a desire to have a shutdown line.
The top two lines are spoken for when it comes to Matthews and Tavares. Just throw someone on the left side who can play hockey competently and get the puck back (Although there have been some drawbacks there, but he’s with the Canucks now). What Keefe has wanted is a reliable shutdown third line that he can play against the opposition’s best leaving more room and opportunity for the superstars to run wild.
He had it for a bit with the HEM/MEH/ZIP line composed of Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall. In the 90 minutes the three played together, they had an expected goals against/60 of 1.99, the third lowest on the team (via MoneyPuck). Their Expected Goals% of 63.4% isn’t bad either but that didn’t lead to actual goals as much as the chances showed, with five total among the three when together. However, when you’re talking a shutdown line, goals are gravy. You want the players you put out to spend more time in the offensive zone than the defensive zone and Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev did that.
HEM, ZIP, MEH, whatever you want to call it— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 7, 2021
The Leafs third line is ridiculously chaotic pic.twitter.com/zHV3Mk16IF
The problem with that line revolves around Hyman. Firstly, and we at PPP continuously made jokes about this, Hyman was clearly the best player on that line. This is no insult to him, but Hyman isn’t known as the skill guy, so when he’s put in a position where he’s the player with the most skill, it sticks out.
Secondly, and this ties to the first point well, Zach Hyman is too good of a player to play on the third line. This is by no means a scorching hot take. Anytime Hyman is taken out of the top-six, he’s put right back up with Matthews and Marner and most recently Tavares to, Keefe’s words not mine, balance out the top-six.
Hyman makes Matthews and Marner better. They create a countless number of scoring chances and convert on lots of them, and are the team’s most dangerous line most nights.
If we take those two points into account, then there isn’t much for Keefe to work with as far as a shutdown line. And if the Leafs wish to use him in such a manner, that’s where Nick Foligno comes in.
Foligno is not known for his offence. In 950 NHL games, the 33-year-old has scored 203 goals and 279 assists for a total of 482 points. His best offensive season was in 2015 when he put up 31 goals and 42 assists, and the closest he’s gotten to those totals since was two years later with 26 goals and 25 assists.
That doesn’t mean Foligno is completely talentless. He still manages to put up at least double-digit goals and 30 points most seasons but it’s his play away from the puck that is going to make him useful here and I’m not only talking about his hit totals.
As far as his offensive game goes in 2021, he’s more of a recipient of circumstance rather than a play driver. He has the mind for offence and knows where to go to create and capitalize on chances but is also well-positioned defensively in-case things go south. A very recent example is a goal he scored against the Detroit Red Wings.
Texier and Werenski are continuously taking control of play on this goal and as the Red Wings are focused on them, Foligno makes his way up and down the ice sticking to the slot. There are even moments where he goes to the point twice.
First to cover for an activating Werenski:
And again to prevent Detroit from clearing the zone:
Foligno isn’t afraid to fight for pucks along the boards and he has the hockey IQ to know how a play is developing and where the spots are to score.
Knowing where to go to score is in the Top-10 of NHL clichés but Foligno does know, especially when playing with skilled players. The GIF above is an example when playing with Texier but he’s also capitalized off of Cam Atkinson.
Atkinson blows past Victor Hedman here and takes the puck to the net. Foligno continues on to the net and scores off the rebound.
I want to make it clear that although Foligno doesn’t score much himself, he still has the skill to play in the offensive zone. He appears to be very comfortable using a quick wrist shot in-stride by the right face-off circle with an extended right leg, and it’s worked on two separate occasions this season.
Against the Carolina Hurricanes (200th career goal)
Against the Dallas Stars
Again, the focus is on defence. Save for two seasons, Foligno has been an excellent shot suppressor in his career. RelCA/60 (relative Corsi against/60 minutes) tell us the number of shots directed towards the net when a player is on the ice vs. off the ice (via Natural Stat Trick). We generally want this number to be as negative as possible and Foligno has had that in all but two of his seasons at 5v5. His stat this year is -1.84 which doesn’t scream shutdown player but it is a contributing factor.
The biggest sign of confidence in his shutdown ability is his extensive usage in the defensive zone on a John Tortorella coached team. Nearly 60% of his even strength zone starts were in the opposition’s end and we know how strongly Torts favours defence.
Anyway you shake it, Foligno is a good defensive player, better than Hyman even. Going back to that shot suppression stat, our favourite puck-hunting bulldog has a 1.31 RelCA/60.
What really stands out to me is Foligno’s even-strength defence heat map (bottom left). Keefe made it clear that he wanted the Leafs to be better defending the front of their net and preventing advances to the crease. Foligno appears to help in that category mitigating shots from those high-danger areas.
We won’t know the actual role Foligno will be used in until he joins the team for practice. The plan could easily be to play him in the top six and make Hyman the straw that stirs the drink of the third line.
Foligno has been playing 1st line minutes for the last five seasons including this current one as he’s averaging 18:09 a night. He is used to playing with speed and skill spending a grand total of 202:54 with Texier while getting runs with Atkinson in spurts. Foligno knows what to and what his role is in these situations.
Keep in mind Keefe has given Joe Thornton a long look with Matthews and Marner because of his ability to work the boards down low and get the puck to either of them so they can work their magic. Foligno can do that. The same goes for the Tavares line.
Alex Galchenyuk is another pleasant surprise of the season and although he is a skilled player, his role is to be a hard forechecker. If the skill comes out in the process that’s fine but being the first on pucks is what Keefe likes the most about him. Foligno can do that.
For years we’ve been begging for the hockey gods to send us a Zach Hyman clone and we may have something close to that. Foligno isn’t going to generate nearly as many scoring chances on the line he plays on, but he will be a reliable forward who will dig in, work, throw some hits and be tough to play against.
Foligno could be used as a third-liner with Engvall and Mikheyev, if they’re both around post-deadline or slot him in on the left of Matthews or Tavares. The possibilities are endless now and Keefe has a lot of combinations to play with and only time will tell how Keefe uses him.
Taylor Hall was the big fish on the market, but it’s clear the Leafs were never as interested as we thought. Foligno was their guy and he’ll make this team better. My only question is if he winds up finding his way in the goal column, how high will he jump?