While fans around the NHL point and laugh at the US$14-million, four-year deal given to defenseman Jeff Finger, Cliff Fletcher is following a blueprint to ensure the Leafs a more promising future.
Let's start with the player that is discussed the most, Jeff Finger. An almost unknown commodity around the NHL, he's somewhat of an underrated player when you take a look at his defensive statistics:
72 games played
117 blocked shots
19:57 time on ice/game
+12 plus/minus rating (2nd on team)
While he only accumulated 8 goals and 19 points last season, this is not the department the Leafs signed him for. In Finger, the Leafs will get a player who is not afraid to clear the front of the net, throw some punishing hits, or block some shots. All three areas he excels in are ones that the Leafs struggled in last season.
With a cap hit of 3.5-million a season, it's unreasonable not to mention the gamble in this signing. At 29 years old, Finger hasn't even played 100 games in the NHL, and this season marks the first of any kind of accomplishment at this level. It remains to be seen if this was merely a one season hit or the first glimpse of what is to come for the 29 year old.
It would be wise for Leafs fans to atleast give Finger a chance before giving him the Bryan McCabe treatment (set ridiculous expectations based on his salary). If we can ignore the oversized contract and just appreciate the defensive style he'll bring to our team, I think we'll be pleasantly surprised with this acquisition.
Next on the list is Finnish born player Niklas Hagman. In Hagman, the Leafs snagged themselves a defensively responsible player who will be able to implement some speed and intensity to their struggling PK unit. While he scored a career-high 27 goals last year, I wouldn't expect him to reproduce those kinds of numbers playing on a much weaker team. If he lands anywhere between 15-20 goals and serves as one of our better PK players, I'll be more than happy with this acquisition. At 28 years old, Hagman still has plenty to give and he seems more than happy on joining a rebuilding club with his new US$12-million, four-year deal "They gave the impression that they really wanted me," said Hagman. "I really wanted to go somewhere that the team really we wanted me. I believe that good things will come. I believe I can be a big part of it." With a cap hit of 3-million dollars per season, Hagman also raises the concern if he'll be able to continue on an impressive season, or fade away like recently bought-out Leaf, Andrew Raycroft.
The Leafs had another acquisition on July 1st, none other than former Leaf Curtis Joseph. While the Leafs aren't expecting huge things from the 41-year old, he's expected to play anywhere between 20-25 games in relief of starting goaltender Vesa Toskala. In Joseph, the Leafs add class, leadership and a great mentor for the young guys. For Joseph, it's fitting he's ends his long and dominant career with the Leafs, an organization in which he flourished in.
It must be said, however, that Fletcher isn't done yet. He made it clear that acquiring another defenseman (preferably from Europe) and a forward was needed. He also intends of ridding the Leafs of Bryan McCabe's lucrative contract, as he revealed in a recent interview with Bill Watters (see link:http://youtube.com/watch?v=8VK9RzbR6CY
) How this unfolds is beyond anyone’s knowledge, but you can be sure this will get ugly… very ugly.
After Day 1 of Free Agency, it's quite clear that Fletcher intends on using Ron Wilson's defensive approach to its fullest, implementing a more defensively responsible system to a team that has always been offense first. Somewhere in Toronto, Vesa Toskala is smiling.