Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson have gotten most of the press for the Ottawa Senators this year, and rightfully so--they are having outstanding seasons by any measuring stick. But lost in their success is the extremely impressive play of another young Senator: Nick Foligno.
Through 29 games this year, Foligno has 19 points (10G, 9A), putting him on pace to destroy his previous season high of 34 points (14G, 20A), set just last year. Foligno has also thrown 82 hits, putting him on pace to obliterate his season high of 119, also set last year.
Why is this so impressive? Foligno's pace of 53 points is not terribly exciting by itself--there are plenty of 50-point players in the NHL these days. But this is Nick Foligno we're talking about, and probably no Senators player has been a bigger tease over the past few seasons.
At the beginning of the year, I was skeptical that Foligno's improved play could be sustained. I had been burned too many times in the past.
In 2008-09, his first full season with the Senators, Foligno notched 17 goals and 15 assists for 32 points. Most promising, seven of those goals came on the power play. Foligno was looking like the kind of player the Senators desperately needed: A young punk not scared to go to the corners and fight. A foolhardy thrillseeker willing to stand in front of the net on the power play and screen the goalie while Mike Fisher launched facebreakers from anywhere he could.
The next season saw him miss a big chunk of time due to a broken leg from blocking a shot. While his assist total climbed to 17, his goals had dropped to 9, a production level that would have seen him score about 34 points if he had played the whole season. But most tellingly, his power play production took a steep drop. Foligno's style of play had changed that year, and he seemed more interested in feeding Alex Kovalev for fancy plays than just doing what he had found success with the previous season.
Come last year, there was reason to believe that he had seen the error of his ways and was going back to the style of play that worked best for him. In the preseason, he had six points (4G, 2A) in six games, and they were beauties, every single one of them. The kid was playing his heart out, and he also wasn't willing to be pushed around, racking up 17 PIMs in the same span. He looked energized and ready for a bigger role with the team.
Then the regular season started, and he had just three points in the month of October--all assists.
November also netted him three points, and included an excruciating nine-game pointless streak. His pendulum had swung completely to the other extreme and he looked nothing like the player Sens fans had watched during the preseason. That Foligno was confident with the puck and with his abilities. This Foligno was hesitant and almost deferential to his linemates.He finished the year with 34 points (14G, 20A), which was good for third on a team that had seen players like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly traded away, and a brutal minus-19 rating that left him tied among the forwards for worst on the team.
This, then, was Nick Foligno: plenty of potential, most of it unrealized. 32-, 26- (34 extrapolated), and 34-point seasons told the tale. Foligno was a 30-point guy--the kind of player who would chip in a goal or assist here or there but couldn't be expected to deliver much more than that.
There was no reason to believe that Foligno would be anything different this year. Once again, he only had three points (1G, 2A) in October, and though he was playing a much more physical game, it was easy to dismiss it--he had teased potential for too long to believe it would be sustained.
Now November has come and gone and his 11 points (5G, 6A) and 39 hits can't be ignored. Not only did he sustain his physical play, he improved his offensive play. He is not the goalie screener of his first season--that role has gone to Colin Greening--but he has found his desire to play in front of the net, crashing goalies with regularity, and taking heaps of abuse for doing so.
And that brings us to today. Foligno is on a six-game point streak, and a three-game goal streak. He's recorded a point in every game the Senators have played in December, and looks right at home centering Daniel Alfredsson and whomever else plays on his line. His hits haven't dropped off and he's been above average in the faceoff circle.
Foligno has sustained his improved level of play too long to ignore it or dismiss it merely because he has teased fans with potential in the past. While it's early in the season, and therefore still possible he might go on an extended pointless run, something about his style of play makes me think that won't happen this time around. This year's Nick Foligno doesn't seem content to try to convert the chances that come his way or to try to get fancy with the puck. Rather, he seems intent on creating his own chances, and that kind of effort level is usually the difference between extended success or streaky play in the NHL.
It's also made a believer out of this doubter.