Nick Foligno had a 2021-22 season to forget. He battled injuries, produced career lows in most statistical categories, and seemed a step behind for much of the year. Many speculated this offseason would be the perfect opportunity for management to buy out Foligno to remove his cap hit from the fourth line or put him in the press box as a healthy scratch. The Boston Bruins decided against this approach, holding onto him, and penciling him into their plans for the upcoming year. Knowing he isn’t going anywhere, is there any hope for a productive season? Yes, there is a chance. Here is how:
New Coach in Montgomery
Foligno was part of a handful of players who voiced their displeasure with former Bruins’ coach Bruce Cassidy. Most of the complaints came from younger players like Jake DeBrusk, who famously requested a trade last season, only to withdraw his request once Cassidy left. Foligno was the primary voice of the veteran players (From “Bruce Cassidy, Don Sweeney and the crumbling of a connective partnership with the Bruins,” The Athletic, 6/10/22), who were not sad to see their former boss leave and join the Vegas Golden Knights.
Much of Foligno’s frustration came from Cassidy’s use of the forward. After starting the year in a middle-six role, he steadily fell down the lineup before finding himself a regular on the fourth-line, unfamiliar territory to the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain. Nobody expected him to be running on the top line with Patrice Bergeron or setting up opposite Brad Marchand or David Pastrnak, but when he signed, he was viewed as a piece of the secondary scoring puzzle. Depending on matchups, it is safe to assume he pictured a role firmly entrenched in the middle of the forward group, jumping to the second line some games, or playing valuable minutes on the third line as a part of heavy forecheckers who could also find the back of the net.
Instead, Foligno spent a majority of the season on the fourth line filling the new-age role of grinder, a less-harsh classification of the enforcer of old. As a player, he does have the physical edge and willingness to engage in scrums, but he was definitely not cut out to be a heavyweight.
With Cassidy gone, Jim Montgomery has stepped in to lead the Bruins. He comes in with a reputation for earning the players’ respect and maintaining his team’s structure, all without ruling with an iron fist as Cassidy occasionally did. Montgomery allowing players more freedom to play their game should help every member of the lineup, as players will be more confident that one error will not cost them a lineup spot. Playing tight is a recipe for failure, Montgomery will bring more of a loose dynamic that should allow the team to succeed.
Similarly, Montgomery is being brought in to generate more offensive chances at even strength. This is where Foligno can make his mark. He likely won’t start on a power play unit, but he should see regular even strength time. If Montgomery can add this new splash of offense, Foligno could see a natural bump to his stats. As confidence grows, opportunities follow. If he can find his scoring touch early, there is no reason to think he won’t earn a chance as the net-front presence on one of the power play units.
Possible Dynamic Linemates
There is some level of speculation concerning possible linemates. That’s the nature of the beast. But with the salary cap situation the Bruins are in, they will need contributions from cheaper, younger options. That means prospects like Jack Studnicka and Fabian Lysell could have every opportunity to break camp with the club. While it may not fit their player profiles as they become established NHLers, these young guns could start the season on the third line — a trio, that depending on roster moves and recovery time, could be manned by Charlie Coyle and none other than Foligno. If Studnicka or Lysell do end up filling the other third-line winger spot, Foligno will have an offensive weapon beside him for the first time in months.
Once Foligno lost the trust of Cassidy, he was stuck with a combination of Tomas Nosek, Curtis Lazar, and Marc McLaughlin on his line, all competent NHL players who know their role and play it well. But none of those skaters were expected to produce much offensively. If two of the three produced double-digit goals in a season, it would have been considered a win.
Studnicka has been projected as a second-line center who could put up 60 to 70 points in a season. Lysell has the chance to be a 30 or 40-goal scorer. Having options like these will give Foligno more confidence and convert on some of the chances he may have created last season only to have the opportunity squandered by a linemate. Couple this offensive potential with his experience as a player and in a position of leadership, and there quickly starts to form a foundation for a line.
There is some risk with the young guns that Foligno’s foot speed holds him out of plays, which when coupled with the inexperience of youth could lead to defensive breakdowns. But there is also the chance that he can play a defensive safety net role, covering and helping to shelter the younger players as they get their feet (skates) under them. This outcome would be harder to sell to the fans because there are fewer stats to point to the impact Foligno is having, but even without the numbers backing him, this outcome would help the Bruins remain relevant in the playoff hunt.
How Likely is a Bounceback Season for Foligno?
Frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it. At the same time, crazier things have happened. Montgomery has a track record of elevating the play across the lineup; so it is fair to wonder if Foligno can benefit from something similar. Nobody is expecting him to crack the top six. There is a scenario where he is a solid depth option giving the Bruins a physical presence with some scoring sprinkled into the bottom-six. This may be optimistic, but Bruins’ management has shown they are going to keep giving Foligno every opportunity to find ice time. With the injury to Marchand and the first two center spots on the roster remaining unfilled to date, Foligno may have to play, whether fans like it or not. There just aren’t any other options.
Maybe this confidence from management and the coaches will be enough to spark one more competitive season for a player who is loved in every locker room he’s been in.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.