Weâ€™ve partnered up with Pension Plan Puppets to bring to you a Player Review series, where we will be evaluating and grading the 2009-10 season for every Leaf who featured in a significant number of games for the Blue and White last season, with an eye towards 2010-11. Today we feature Jeff Finger, profiled by Alec Brownscombe.
A former 1999 eighth round pick, Jeff Finger came to the Leafs via unrestricted free agency as a 29-year-old who was skating in the ECHL the last time Toronto made the playoffs. After his first steady NHL season with Colorado in ’07-08, Cliff Fletcher rolled the dice on a $3 million-per-year raise for the journeyman that will cost the Leafs 3.5 million against the cap annually until 2012. Fletcher obviously thought there was a lot more to come from Finger in his late development as a two-way defenceman, but let’s just say on that fateful day in July, 2008, the optics weren’t good.
To his credit, Finger, working under big contract-induced scrutiny never before experienced in the likes of Colorado, Lowell, Hershey or Reading, combined with Luke Schenn to help fill some glaring needs in the Leafs defense in ’08-09. Finger’sÂ 136 hits helped the Leafs‘ climb out of the bottom ten league-wide in ’07-08 and into thirteenth in the category come the end of ’08-09. Additionally, his 113 blocked shots made him far and away the team’s leader, 18 ahead of second-best Pavel Kubina in 16 less games played. These are no doubt important functions, and he did supplementÂ his defensive performance with some offensive output (5 goals and 23 points) while averaging 20 minutes a game, but at $3.5 million Finger was always in an uphill battle in justifying the price of his ticket.
’09-10 could only be described as a regression as Finger featured in just 39 games throughout the campaign, with many considering his future in a Leaf jersey to most likely have “MARLIES” written across it.
Surprising to me, Finger averaged the highest points-per-60 of all Leafs defencemen last season at 1.06, and was the owner of the highest primary assistant average of 0.53 per 60, albeit with a half-season sample size. Still, it hints that Fletcher might not have been all wrong in identifying Finger has some understated two-way ability as a puck mover.
Finger also remained the Leafs‘ best shot blocker by a country mile based on the averages, posting a 9.3 shots blocked per 60, a full 4 BkS/60 more than second-best Carl Gunnarsson and good enough for fourth in the league. This was even a marked improvement over his ’08-09 total of 6.2 BkS/60. Give Finger credit, he lays it all on the line when afforded the opportunity.
Finger’s TOI/60 dropped from 20 minutes in ’08-09 to below 12 in ’09-10. This can be in part attributed to management’s addition ofÂ bigger names and contracts in Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, who both provide in more expanded roles the hardhat functions that Finger was originally signed to perform. Mike Komisarek would fall to injury last season, but it wasn’t long before Carl Gunnarsson caught the attention of the coaching staff with strong two-way play.
The results for Finger defensively outside of the shot block column weren’t overly positive however, as Finger posted a -11 in 39 games while playing the second easiest competition among Leafs blueline regulars. Garnet Exelby became the Leafs’ sixth man on a more regular basis while Finger was resigned to spot duty. Decisions by management certainly put Finger in tough to hold down a regular role, but he didn’t exactly make it a difficult decision for the coaching staff.
The reality of the situation is that Jeff FInger is an obstacle in Burke’s cap management for this season and the next and has negative trade value. On a blueline with nearly twenty million tied up to it’s top four salaries (and 19 even if Kaberle is subtracted and Schenn is added), Finger’s $3.5M cap hit as a 6th or 7th man is nonviable from a cap perspective. Especially if Burke wants to spend some big bucks on the FA market, and even more so should his suggestion ring true that some of the Marlies’ Big Four (Keith Aulie, Korbinian Holzer)Â will make a push for a bottom pair spot with the Leafs in the fall (in terms of numbers).
Burke is a man of principle, and believes that a player deserves a shot elsewhere if the opportunity isn’t with his club. I won’t say Finger’s immovable, as we all ate some crow for thinking similar thoughts about Jason Blake, but it of course would have to be a “my problem for your problem” scenario where Burke trades off term for dollars. This requires quite a few pieces to come together between two general managers. If something weren’t to come to fruition, Burke has also let it be known he’s not opposed to burying in the minors should a player pose no contribution to the parent club.
There remains the outside shot, if the Leafs have some cap space to play with, that Finger resurges at training camp and fights his way back into some icetime.
Now itâ€™s your turn.Â In the comments, rate Finger on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season.
If you were Brian Burke, how do you approach Finger’s contract going forward?
Has Finger played his final game in a Maple Leaf jersey?