Before this season started, Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno talked at length about getting his own play, and the play of his team, back on track.
"I did a lot of self-reflecting," Foligno said. "You look at our club and the reason why I felt like I struggled a bit is that I didn't play to my characteristics, to my attributes. You've got to play to your identity - and our identity is going to be a fast, hard-working tenacious group. That's my identity to a 'T.' When I play like that, my skill and my attributes come out.
"I need to be the guy at the forefront leading that. I'm looking forward to that challenge and that opportunity."
Through the first 10 games of the season, it's fair to say Foligno has accepted and met that challenge head on.
With the Blue Jackets at 5-3-2 through a tough opening stretch, Foligno's four goals and eight assists are good enough for 12th in the NHL and a shared spot as the team leader in points with linemate Alexander Wennberg. Foligno is also the leader in primary points (goals plus first assists) on the team (10). In even strength play, Foligno is second on the team in both total and primary points.
Foligno is already one-third of the way to his point total from the entire 2015-16 campaign, and has accomplished this while drawing the same amount of ice time as last season (16:53 per game in 2015-16 and 16:56 this season).
The scoring becomes more impressive when considering who he's done it against: Foligno's level of competition faced has increased year-over-year. The two charts below from hockeyviz.com illustrate the competition Foligno faced last season compared to this year; the red line marks "average" ice time for each forward and defenseman based on their place in the lineup. The red bars indicate Foligno's time on ice within the lineup.
In the chart on the right, we see Foligno facing, on average, a higher level of competition than he did last season with more play against first- and second-best opposing forwards compared to the year prior.
But offense isn't the only focus for Foligno. We can see in the chart below that he ranks among the top Blue Jackets forwards not only when it comes to producing shot attempts, but also in limiting them - something Foligno thinks about when he's on the ice.
"My mind goes to both (producing and limiting attempts)," Foligno said. "(Assistant coach) Brad Larsen was a big part of teaching that to me: how quickly can I get back to be an option? It's amazing how quick you can break out when you do that. It's not so much just getting on the forecheck, it's coming back and being a good option for your D and being quick out of your end, and usually that creates more offensive opportunities."
According to Corsica.hockey, Foligno leads all Columbus players in limiting shot attempts over the last two seasons. His shot attempts against per 60 minutes in that time is 52.34. And this season, within the Blue Jackets' roster, the captain is fourth among all forwards, and sixth among all players (with 75 or more minutes on ice) in the same measure (58.32).
"I always pride myself on being quick out of our end making the simple plays that are there, being reliable on the boards as a winger," Foligno said. "That's your number one job: (when) the puck comes up to you on the wall, how do you get it out? I pride myself a lot on that on the defensive side because that's really where everything starts for me."
Foligno said he and his linemates talk about playing hard in the defensive zone "all the time." He said the goal is to be in the right spot defensively in order to set up better gaps against opposing defensemen, thus creating more space and time with the puck.
And with this focus on playing sound defensively, are the lines blurring between a traditional forward and defenseman role? Foligno says when it comes to winning, it's all about the collaboration.
"We appreciate what the D are doing for us so much, it's amazing how mobile they are," Foligno said. "They create options for us. When I'm on the wall, it's the D jumping up on the rush. He's wide open and I can give the puck to him and we're gone. Once you're out of your end quick, you get so much more time and so much more energy to play in the offensive zone, and it's helping."
Quality of Competition visuals via Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com. Usage visual courtesy of Sean Tierney (@SeanTierneyTSS). All data via Corisca.hockey unless otherwise stated.