Friday, April 04, 2014

Marked for greatness, Folin just needs to be given a fair chance

For some, UMass-Lowell River Hawks defenseman Christian Folin has become The Swedish Solution for what ails an NHL club's blueline.

He's 23 years old, about two birthdays past what a typical North American college sophomore would be, and stands 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds.

On the surface, there are not many Division I players who wouldn't be NHL ready at this point. In fact, at least one league scout told a prominent blog's Flyers beat writer that Folin is the cream of the current college free agent crop.

Chris Peters even went as far as this in a piece from March 25: "Any team not already at the 50-contract limit this season will be able to sign the defenseman as an unrestricted free agent and the stakes for acquiring the gifted blueliner couldn't be higher for some teams."

Aside from St. Lawrence's Greg Carey -- the third-leading scorer in the country who was signed by Phoenix before gaining mention as a Hobey Baker finalist for his senior season -- he is at the top. That doesn't say much for the crop, though.

But Folin is a little bit different.

He's not a Mark Howe prototype, grown from the womb to have an immediate, lasting and positive impact on the game once released into the pros. He's more a Scott Niedermayer type, constant, steady, there to make an impressive play when needed and built for the long haul.

"I just try to keep it simple," said Folin after contributing a goal and assist in UMass-Lowell's 4-0 victory over Providence which clinched the Hockey East playoff championship on March 22. "It's playoff hockey; you just have to keep it simple and move the puck."

Doesn't sound like much of a hero and game changer, does it?

There's a tendency on social media for fans, desirous of a hotshot, quick fix to their favorite team's scattershot back line and fueled by a few promoted actions which piques interest, to become stricken like a five-year-old with ADD let loose at Kay Bee Toys, screaming "want that!" at something shiny in each and every aisle.

Regarding Folin, all it took was the tale of his cannon shot which could not be contained by simple cross-hatched netting against Vermont in the Hockey East quarterfinals. There's also this fawning praise piece by his local newspaper from this time last year, which tries to fashion the young man into a folk hero.

The reality is, Folin was signed by the Minnesota Wild on Monday night and joined the club Wednesday, one day before a matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks in which he did not dress.

Norm Bazin has molded UMass-Lowell into a juggernaut in both in conference and on the national scene thanks to a tight defensive system which, by and large, attempts to nullify the middle of the ice.

Keeping shot totals down is not one of the main goals, but keeping the shots to areas on the rink defined by distance and angle is, in the same way the Florida Panthers played a passive trap against the Philadelphia Flyers for most of their 1996 playoff series. Sophomore starter Connor Hellebuyck played to a 1.73 goals-against average prior to the start of the NCAA tournament after facing an average of 30.3 shots per contest, but he's not asked to stand up to many dead-on, quality chances. Senior backup Doug Carr has a 1.80 GAA and sees 28.6 shots per appearance.

The RiverHawks have allowed as many as five goals only once this season, and that's thanks to the entire defensive corps: Folin, but also seniors Joe Houk and Dan Furlong, juniors Jake Suter and Zack Kamrass, freshmen Michael Kapla, Dylan Zink and sophomore Greg Amlong.

"Christian is certainly a very important part in our D-corps," said Bazin, acknowledging the role of the entire defense in his team's success. "For us, he gives us some size, he gives us some transition, and he usually gets the puck through."

In UML's Northeast Region games against Minnesota State-Mankato and Boston College, you heard Kamrass' name at least twice as much as Folin's. That's because Kamrass is a smaller, but more dynamic presence who possesses the puck more and is able to move it in all three zones, in contrast to Folin's role as the defenseman who stands up to onrushing attackers, the one expected to use his size for cutting off skating lanes and for clearing space in the crease. 

(Ed note: the rest of the piece was written prior to Monday's news but still pertinent)

Given his experience and role, Folin will be best served on clubs which stick to a rigid system that need an extra big body to complement a d-man of slight build or one with a greater skill set. Minnesota, St. Louis, and wherever John Tortorella winds up if he's given another shot to coach in the NHL next year will be a good fit. Tampa Bay might also benefit from his services, as a more intelligent, skilled version of Radko Gudas.

Where might Folin not do well, given his circumstances and a team's need? Philadelphia.

"He's a good looking player. He's big. He moves good, moves the puck, good defender. Could he jump right in? Probably on the right team he could, yeah," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren last week, hedging on whether or not the organization had any interest.

Owing to the pressing need to upgrade its plodding defensive corps in the wake of a battle for playoff positioning in the Metropolitan Division, it would be an epic mistake to throw the kid into the mix, expecting him to make a difference from day one. That doesn't even take into account the club's contract situation, which may not allow anything but an ATO for the remainder of the year if an entry-level deal can't be worked out. 

Should UML not reach the Frozen Four, and if the Flyers take the leap, the best scenario would be to give him whatever remaining time the Phantoms have in Glens Falls, bring him to training camp in September, and then let the chips fall where they may. If Folin impresses, send him to Allentown until there's no reason to keep him in the AHL. Folin, though, would be no replacement for Kimmo Timonen nor upgrade from Nicklas Grossmann. He would be the perfect complement for Timonen in a second pairing if the Finnish veteran decides to give us one more season. He could end up as a puck-sure alternative to the departed Matt Carle.

Jim Matheson said last week that the Oilers are strongly considering Folin's services. Edmonton lacks a deep defense, but its recent desire to stock the club with young talent at both ends of the ice with little implications in their playoff hopes may not serve him well. Craig MacTavish will have to find a veteran blueliner to ease Folin's transition, Dallas Eakins' defensive plan notwithstanding.

(Ed. note: returning to the present) 

Ultimately, Folin's fate rests in Minnesota's plan and his own adaptability to the expectations and pace of the professional ranks. The Wild are in the midst of their own playoff chase, secure in the West's first wild-card spot and therefore don't need to waste one half of his current entry-level deal on some misguided belief he can inject some new blood into the blueline.

I'm hoping Des Moines is the next stop, as the Iowa Wild are dead last in the AHL's Western Conference with eight games remaining and so the organization can take a relaxed look at how Folin can fit into their future plans.
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