Whenever a building is demolished by implosion the spectacle creates a horde of onlookers, feeding on a basic human attraction toward violent destruction. It is the same depraved impulse that causes so many to further the obstruction of traffic when they pass a wreck on the highway. Though the impact of such rearrangement is immediate and rife with dramatic imagery, few if any can be counted on to witness the aftermath. Granted, this may be due to the fact that cleanup takes much more time and does not provide the immediate sense of gratification to see a completed transformation into an intended goal, be it the historic building leveled to the ground to make way for a cineplex, mall or parking lot, or the dismantling of an historic sports institution to make way for a championship.
Cleanup has begun in Toronto. Though not all intended areas for reconstruction have been demolished, this first cycle of free agency will help provide the building blocks for the intended foundation. After the hockey world watched the Maple Leafs quickly dismantle, their attention has turned elsewhere. Yet as the rebuilding commences Toronto is going to find it difficult to find a few good men to help with the cleanup, so it comes as no surprise that the sturdiest, most reliable pillars of skill would rather not place themselves in that position. The Maple Leafs have conceded that during this period of free agency, unlike much of their recent history, they will shift focus onto a second tier of young players with potential to help build a shining tower.
The exception to this criteria is of course Curtis Joseph
. After the departure of Scott Clemmensen and buyout of Andrew Raycroft, the Leafs were in need of a backup to their workhorse in goal, Vesa Toskala. Justin Pogge, now with the Marlies, had struggled toward the end of the AHL season and sat for most of the playoffs. Though he is tabbed as the Leafs goalie of the future, his not ready for primetime player status remains intact. With many solid options available to Fletcher and Co., such as Ty Conklin, Steve Valiquette and Patrick Lalime, Cujo will be heading back to the Air Canada Centre with more than a few bags packed full of nostalgia. After a season in Calgary backing up Miikka Kiprusoff with flashes of his career-best brilliance, Joseph proved he still could play at the highest level with some success. However, there are many fans in Leafland who still malign his multi-million dollar exodus to sign with Detroit after his fourth, and most impressive, season in Toronto.
All said, this signing makes some sense for the Leafs at the dawn of a season where even the most die-hard optimists of Leaf Nation are resigned to the reality that their team will struggle mightily to keep up with the skill of not only their divisional opponents but with the rest of the league as well. Placing a familiar face, largely a fan favorite, in the lineup may prove to be cause for enthusiasm in watching several matchups this season. Certainly, the price tag (700k) couldn’t be any better for what the Leafs hope to get out of him. However, there is some cause for concern. As a backup to Toskala, he is expected to play at most one in four games. With the underwhelming offensive presence the Leafs will field next year, in addition to coach Ron Wilsons implementation of a defensive-oriented system, goaltending will be crucial to any chance of success the Leafs may have in saving face to make this season anything but a run at Tavares in next year’s draft. If Toskala is injured for a prolonged stretch, this could spell trouble. On one hand, if Cujo comes in and plays a shaky game much like he did during his post-lockout tenure with Phoenix, it could not only prove disheartening for the team but may well damage his legacy and favoritism in the hockey capital of the world. On the other, if he comes in and saves the day, the storyline of his triumphant return would be enough to excite Leafs Nation into investing themselves emotionally in the turnaround of their beloved team and may prove to hold some sense of hope in what promises to be a turbulent stretch in the rebuilding process. Any way you look at it, the signing of Curtis Joseph and his subsequent return to Toronto will generate enough talk and excitement to keep the fans watching.
Regardless of whether or not the fans watch, it goes without saying that the media will talk. Already we have seen a flurry of media frenzy to introduce Toronto’s newest defenceman, Jeff Finger
. We’ve seen a taste of the not-so-creative side of Toronto sportswriters interjecting different permutations of an obscene gesture into their headlines;
Fletcher Gives Leafs the Finger,
etc. Regardless of his play on the ice, his $14 million 4-year contract is worth its weight in ducats alone for the entertainment it will provide in print for the Toronto Sun. If he becomes criticized for not playing a physical game or backing down from a fight he will inevitably be called Chicken Finger. The list could go on and on and it probably will. Yet right off the bat, this young man is at a tremendous disadvantage in Toronto, nobody knows him. Furthermore, he will be taking home $3.5 million a year. We all know the flack Kubina took during the season for being a $5 million defenceman that many felt was overpaid, is it likely that Leafs fans will put Jeff Finger under the microscope and do the same? Most likely. With this in mind, he has to leave one hell of an impression to win the fans over.
I amm not going to lie to you, I don’t know much about him as a player. The only impression of him I have ever had was watching an Avs game and finding it peculiar that the name Finger was sewn on a jersey with that incredibly pointless and ugly Foot patch that Colorado puts on the shoulder. I thought it would be more appropriate to have Toews written next to it, although the only time it’s ever looked proper was when Foote was scrawled on the back. At any rate, I am as perplexed by this signing as I am regarding the insistence of the Avalanche organization to continue the use of that stupid patch.
My first question to Cliff Fletcher would be: what is the hurry? Granted, Ron Wilson saw something in this kid when he played the Avs in the Western Conference and it is important to take his input into consideration when attempting to build a team around his system. But was there really such a flurry of offers being presented to him that you felt the need to sign him to a contract of that magnitude on the first day of free agency? Again, I realize that not every player would want to play for the Leafs, especially given the difficult road ahead, but why single this player out when you had the option of Hainsey, Mara or even Orpik? To put it bluntly, in the word of Jeannie Bueller on her brother Ferris:
What makes him so G--damned special?
I suspect that the only way we will get answers from this signing is by staying tuned. The Leafs are not finished making moves just yet and if a trade is in the works to dump one of their other young defensive defencemen (as opposed to an offensive defenceman), this move may justify itself. However, as things currently stand, with McCabe being strongarmed out of town and teams inquiring about Kubina, I don’t see why they did not go with trying to wrap up a young offensive defenceman right off the bat; one whose services are more contested at this juncture than Jeff Finger may have been. I can see that they felt the need to add a young defensive specialist but just cannot fathom why they pulled the trigger so quickly on him. If Wilson felt that he was a must have on his own merit without taking into consideration other moves the Leafs may make to trade off their D-corps, I suppose it will have to do as an explanation for now.
In my opinion, the signing of Niklas
is an excellent move for the Leafs. It might be better for him to drop the nickname inspired by the actor who played J.R. Ewing in “Dallas” now that the winger is, in fact, no longer in Dallas. I suppose that this matter hinges on what happens in the locker room or the team charter. At any rate, the young winger, son of former Oiler and Finnish league legend Matti Hagman, plays with a rocket of passion and determination, and is finally finding his footing in the NHL. Most importantly for the Leafs, he is a great two-way player and will fit seamlessly into Ron Wilson’s plans. Though he’s not widely known as a tremendous offensive producer, he charged out of the gate last year with Dallas in a very impressive stretch in the first two months notching up 10 goals, only 3 on the power play, but scoring 3 shorthanded- a strong testament to his versatility. Though he struggled to maintain the consistency of his early production, he finished with a career-best season in Dallas. Give this guy a shot at a line where he can show some chemistry with others and there’s no stopping him. He’ would fit perfectly on a line with Stajan and Steen. Each skaters style of play would complement one another perfectly. I can’not wait to see what kind of impact this player has on a second or third line in addition to PK duties. Playing with the determination he possesses, he will positively impact those players around him. An excellent move by Fletcher.
So, there we are. One day down and so many to go. Guess we will see how this all stacks up given time. More thoughts coming on future off-season signings for the Leafs as they happen and let’s all hope the Avs rid themselves of that ridiculous foot.