If the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was going to be the linchpin onto which the Maple Leafs commenced its rebuild, then the July 1st free agency free-for-all was going to be a barometer with which to measure the organizations immediate ambitions.
Going into the first days of free agency, the Leafs had two options. The first was too play it frosty, pick up some low key, low cap hitters who could provide some depth in the roster whilst giving the team some substantial future cap space, or follow the traditional MLSE route and stack up several big, usually veteran, signings, putting of a true rebuild for instantaneous mediocrity and awkward ego clashes.
Thankfully the Leaf’s erred on the side of caution and picked up a couple of roster guys and a decent offensive presence nailing just 7.2 million on the cap limit and maintaining over 11 million in contingency.
Opening the days proceedings the Maple Leafs announced the return of Curtis Joseph, as much a memento of nostalgia, as a useful stop gap solution between Raycroft’s inevitable exit and Justin Pogge’s arrested development.
Having left Toronto in 2002, his previous incarnation for the Leafs, a three year stint between 98-99’ and 01-02’ saw three consecutive playoff appearances and two conference finals. Now 41, Joseph provided an adequate backup to Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary where he posted 3 wins and 2 losses and a .906 save percentage last year and whilst little used, is known to be an excellent veteran presence in a young dressing room. Conventional wisdom suggests that 08-09’ will probably be Joseph’s final season and a return to Toronto as a career wrap up had always been in the mind for the Keswick, Ontario native for some time. Playing in front of a more defensively geared team, Joseph will provide good support to Toskala at a decent price so long as a prolonged period of usage is not required.
Three and a half hours later, the Leafs announced their second signing of the day and this one came as something of a surprise. Jeff Finger was welcomed as another defensive pick up but with a 3.5 million a year contract, a considerably number of eyebrows were raised in Toronto.
Entering only his third NHL season, Finger who is now 29, may be something of an unknown quantity outside of Denver, but as a team leader in hits, the overtly physical blueliner has come on leaps and bounds to tighten his positional play around his bodychecking tendencies and posted a +12 rating in a defensively lax team. Brought in, on rumour, as a potential replacement for Pavel Kubina who was being courted by the thread bare Blue Jackets, Finger is seen as a shutdown stay-at-home defensemen that could work well in a system awaiting Luke Schenn.
Nevertheless, considered a borderline 4th or 5th D-man in Colorado, Finger’s ability to be extremely solid and dependable does little to justify the 3.5 million cap hit Toronto have taken on him and the transaction has been a hotpoint of discussion around Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher since Tuesday. Fletcher was quick to point out that Finger was one of the few truly developing players available as a UFA on July 1st whilst waxing lyrical about his work ethic; meanwhile critics in Colorado were quick to scapegoat the rookie for a Minnesota goal in game 3 of the 2008 playoffs which effectively ended his time with the Avs’.
Either way a relatively immobile, low stamina, poor puck handling defenseman with a heart of gold, grinding ethic and decent cannon shot, he will be a dependable D in the vein of former Leaf great Ken Klee or a lesser Brooks Orpik, just a lot more expensive. One of the leagues dubious free agency deals.
From the Leafs most questionable acquisition to the most frugal, three hours after the ongoing debarcle surrounding the Jeff Finger deal, the Maple Leafs tied up former Dallas Star Niklas Hagman to a four year deal for a full half million less than the aforementioned, maligned D-Man.
Coming off the back of a career year in Texas, the unassuming Finnish left winger was something of a snap for the Leafs when nobody else came looking. Fletcher was wooed by the 28 year olds speed and offensive awareness having tallied 27 goals and 41 points in a full 82 game season last term. A consummate second or third liner for the Stars, Hagman’s goal finding flare will likely see him playing on the Toronto second, if not top line, whilst he also doubles as a useful second string penalty killer with a panache for shorthanders owing to his breakaway acceleration. Finishing the season with a total of eight game winning goals, a league wide tying 6th Hagman has proven to show up big late in games with a temperament and consistency much vaunted in an increasingly makeshift lineup. A long time friend of Leafs goalie and fellow Finnish international Vesa Toskala, Hagman is an accomplished pro and competitor and rounded out the first day signings in astute style.
Two days after the Leafs tied up Hagman and all but ceased their interest in the major free agency movements, the collective eye was on a trade falling under the radar. Swapping either side of the great Canadian rivalry, Toronto acquired Mikhail Grabovski from the Montreal Canadiens for the rights of 2008 draftee Greg Pateryn and Toronto’s second round 2010 draft selection.
An irksome return to newly drafted ship outs and draft selections all too common in Leafs history, Belarusian centerman Grabovski comes off the back of a good World Championships and successful stints in the AHL posting 20 points in 12 games and with the Canadiens where he posted 9 points in 24 games. Only 24, Grabovski has real potential stunted last term by a 25 game lay off. Nonetheless a injury shortened season into his NHL career, Grabovski is recognized as a speedy skater with an excellent offensive touch, albeit against AHL goaltenders. Particularly unphysical in his approach, Grabovski offers a lot of heart having been a popular franchise man for the Hamilton Bulldogs where he was a familiar and friendly face to staff, a nice touch for a highly paid athlete. Probably a third liner with second string power play potential, Grabovski has prospective talent that the Leafs will need.
Naturally the flip side saw a few players leave in the touted cleanout, but off the back of three poor seasons and a notorious inability to develop prospects, many of the depth players have had few NHL suitors. In fact, outside of the free agency period, much of the revolver door action occurred before July 1st as the Leafs cut loose the driftwood in buyouts and waivers. Raycroft, Tucker and Wellwood predictably exited whilst one of McCabe or Kubina look Ohio bound, but the biggest story in the free agency period remains the will he won’t he saga of Mats Sundin.
Long time captain on a terminally uncompetitive team, at least in the last few years, with a prolonged period of rebuilding in the woodworks, it would seem an apt time for the Swede to leave. However, with the Canadiens apparently chucking money at the 37 year old in a vein attempt to right the wrongs of the mid season trade deadline fiasco, questions still remain over the future of the Leafs poster boy. With the trade deadline three days deep and the interest of the Canucks apparently ceased, Sundin’s outlook appears to be a three horse race, the Leafs, Canadiens or the golf course.
With 11 million dollars worth of cap space, it’s unclear if the Leafs are planning for Sundin’s return, or preparing for his retirement. Whichever side the coin lands, the Leafs are going to be a very different beast in 08-09.’ Clearly not playoff contenders from the very start, with Wilson molding the team around his defense orientated strategy the Leafs seem to be stacking their roster intelligently with one eye on the future. Sure the Finger deal may be financially bad, but many in Denver prized the underdogs defensive presence and the Hagman transaction was one of the deals of the day.
It’s refreshing to finally see the organization start to put some genuine thought into the trade and drafting process with a mind on the roles incoming players will fill, Fletcher and the MLSE look like they are slowly getting their act together and hopefully, in time, the boys in blue and white might start doing the same on the ice.