Contract years can be stressful if a player likes the city where he plays. Marcus Foligno will be a restricted free agent this summer, and he loves Buffalo. He’s not feeling any stress, though.
His play has dissolved it.
Foligno, who is putting pucks in the opponents’ net and keeping them out of his, feels he’s finally put it all together. With consistency and intensity at both ends of the ice, the 24-year-old believes he’s proving to the Sabres he should be a necessary piece going forward.
“I’ve been showing the coaches that they can trust me out there in crucial situations and the offensive side of my game is there,” Foligno said Monday. “I’ve got to bring that every night, and I feel like I have with the physicality of it, sticking up for teammates and things like that. I think the overall game, if I can bring something every night, you’re going to be a factor. I’ve figured it out.
“This is the best I’ve felt and the most consistent I’ve played. I believe I’m only going to get better from here on out.”
Foligno will enter Tuesday’s game in Carolina with two goals and three points in the last four games. He’s set a career high in goals (10), and his 11 assists are two shy of his best. The fifth-year winger has learned how to use his 6-foot-3, 226-pound frame in a league where most things happen within a few feet of the net.
“You’ve got to be a good player around the net if you want to score,” said center Johan Larsson, who has teamed with Foligno and Brian Gionta to form Buffalo’s steadiest line. “He’s a good player. He’s strong on the walls, makes some plays, has got some patience with the puck. He’s very good on the forecheck.”
Since arriving with a goal-scoring flurry late in the 2011-12 season, Foligno has shown flashes of being a solid power forward. Those flashes have been surrounded by lapses of inactivity. The lapses are disappearing.
“He’s been much more consistent in playing a big power-forward game, playing a checking game, being a physical guy,” coach Dan Bylsma said in First Niagara Center. “That’s what I think has been the best thing about him has been the consistency to it. It’s not just a once-in-a-while type of attributes to his game.
“Last game we had him at nine hits. He was a physical guy in the game again and has been that for us for a consistent stretch of the last 25 games.”
Foligno credits his offensive improvements to learning how to be patient.
“I just feel a lot more comfortable out there,” he said. “I’m using my size, playing smarter with moving my feet out there, trying to protect pucks as much as I can. With the confidence up now, I think I’m just trying to hold on to pucks and do things myself down low. Not in a selfish way at all, it’s just I need to handle it so I can buy some time for Gio and Larry to be open.
“Before it wasn’t like that. I was getting the puck and getting rid of it as fast as I can. If I can hold the puck down low, we can generate a lot more stuff and create a lot more dangerous plays around the net.”
Foligno is just as proud of his work in the defensive zone. While other lines have come and gone, the Larsson, Foligno and Gionta trio has remained intact. They’re playing against offensive-minded opponents, yet Foligno’s plus/minus rating in the last nine games is plus-6.
“That’s a positive in my books,” Foligno said. “It’s good not to be scored on, and it’s good to have that consistency over this past month. It feels like we’ve been on the plus side every game.”
The Sabres are going to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season, a skid that coincides with the length of Foligno’s career. He sees the drought ending next year, and he wants to be around for it. He’s coming to the close of a two-year contract that pays $2.25 million.
“That’s my biggest priority is to remain a Buffalo Sabre,” Foligno said. “The attitude starts now, but next year is going to be a different feel for it. It’s got to be a must-make-playoffs year.
“With all the pieces we’ve put in place, the way Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart have been playing, two key young guys who are going to be here for a long time, the foundation is built. Now it’s trying to stack the right blocks on top of it and get it moving up.”