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Foligno leads Jackets to best season in club history

The 29-year-old is once again among the club's leading scorers, having topped the 20-goal mark for the second time in his career.

by Alison Lukan @AlisonL / BlueJackets.com

How does change happen? It's rarely a lightning bolt moment. It's often a series of events that diligently lead to a new reality.

For captain Nick Foligno, his five years as a Columbus Blue Jacket have taken him on a journey filled with ups and downs both on and off the ice.

After being acquired via a trade with the Ottawa Senators during the summer of 2012, Foligno's first season in Columbus was delayed by a work stoppage and ended with the team missing out on a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a tie-breaker. 

A year later, he scored 18 goals - a career high at the time - to help the Jackets earn their second-ever playoff berth and notched one of the most memorable goals in club history at 2:49 of overtime in Game Four to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 at Nationwide Arena.

In 2014-15, Foligno scored a career high 31 goals, captained a team at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game played at Nationwide Arena and helped the Blue Jackets to a 42-35-5 record despite an NHL-leading 508 man games lost to injury.

Coming off that career year, he had his end of season conversations with club management and coaches that hinted to what was soon to become a reality. On May 20, 2015, he was named the sixth captain in Blue Jackets history. Everything seemed to be coming together perfectly for the team and its newly minted captain.

Just one year later, however, the end of year conversations took a much different tone.

Foligno had watched his team falter out of the starting gate, endure a coaching change and struggle to get out of the bottom of the NHL standings for most of the year. Personally, he had scored half as many points as he had the previous season, and night after night, he would stand at his locker post-game as everyone sought answers as to what had gone wrong.

"I basically told him at the end of last year 'I'm not so sure you can do it," said John Tortorella, who took over as head coach just seven games into the 2015-16 campaign. "I told him I'm going to watch him very closely. I had to be honest with him."

It was a lot to take in.

With the Jackets' season done, instead of turning away from hockey, Foligno turned towards it, and found his way back to the game he needed to play. He headed to Russia to play for Team USA in the 2016 IIHF World Championships.

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"Just jumping back into a whole different atmosphere, but the same game, allowed me to have that break," Foligno said. "I was just playing for the fun of it and I got my game back. Sometimes you get caught in a rut throughout the season and you never can find yourself.

"I found that it took me going all the way across the world to find myself, which is kind of funny. It allowed me to appreciate the position that I'm in, to be the captain, and to just realize a burden isn't a burden unless you make it one."

When Foligno got home, he got to work getting ready for the 2016-17 season. He carried useful advice from his father, Mike, who was also a team captain during a 15-year NHL playing career. The elder Foligno told his son that being named captain is the best and worst thing all rolled into one because you feel like you have to do everything perfectly. But the father also told the son that if Nick put in the work, the rest would take care of itself.

"I think you have an idea of what you want to do as a captain," Foligno said. "Then you realize that you throw that out the window because, really, it's what you're going to do as a person that allows you to be that player."

With the summer over, Foligno was ready to prove his case and he headed to Columbus for training camp and the upcoming season. When he arrived, he started to feel that the role of captain fit…finally.

His head coach, true to his word, watched Foligno and remembers when the captain stepped up to fight the Blues' Ryan Reaves during an early-season game in St. Louis.

"He knew when to do that," Tortorella said. "He's such a good person, and I don't want him to lose that, but I want him to have a little stink to him when he needs to within our room and against opposition as far changing the momentum. He has really grown."

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Foligno's teammates agree. Veteran Scott Hartnell joined the team in 2014 and Foligno was the first player to reach out and welcome him to the Blue Jackets. The two have become fast friends, visiting each other during the off-season and sharing pre-game lunches.

"The times we've had a couple lulls he's snapped us back into that business-like attitude," Hartnell said. "He has a great idea of when we're slipping and when we're not slipping. Torts wants us to control that room and I think (Foligno) has done a great job of being the leader of that."

Foligno now brings more ideas to Tortorella on behalf of his team, many of which the veteran coach has adopted. And on the ice, the quality of Foligno's play is proving out. The 29-year-old is once again among the club's leading scorers, having topped the 20-goal mark for the second time in his career. He has played in integral role in Columbus enjoying the best season in the franchise's 17-year history.

"I think I've allowed my play to speak for itself," he said. "So right there, I feel like I have more to say. I think as you grow you understand certain situations and how you can handle them. I think I've been able to really relate to a lot of guys this year and have my leadership come out through that."

Now as for those post-game interviews, Foligno stands confidently at his locker. He'll accurately assess areas of improvement in a game that wasn't up to club standards, as well as celebrate the accomplishments of his teammates around the room.

"He's a resilient man," Hartnell said. "I'm lucky to call him a friend. I'm sure there are a lot of great guys in this league on every team, but there are not too many guys you'd be friends with after hockey or after you move on from a team or retire. Nick will be a guy that I keep in contact with and will be friends with for a long time." 

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