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All We Are Saying...

July 2, 2008, 4:16 PM ET [ Comments]

It took no time at all for the Toronto media to give recent acquisition Jeff Finger the Pavel Kubina treatment. Despite the fact that Finger plays in the opposite Conference (one which is making the East look increasingly inferior), on a team which Leafs fans and media haven't had a good look at since the teams' last meeting in October of 2006, Finger has already been deemed the next buyout candidate on Cliff Fletcher's hit list, almost entirely based around the statistic of 94 GP. Welcome to Toronto, Jeff.

First off, its clear that Cliff Fletcher and Ron Wilson's intention is to inject some Western zest into the Leafs' line-up. In the past two seasons, the West has quickly established itself as bigger, faster, and stronger than the East. Anyone who owns the NHL Center Ice package can attest to the fact that Western hockey has provided superior entertainment in the post-lockout era. Fletcher clearly prefers a rock and sock 'em, strong, gritty and fast identity. When you read the names of his acquisitions thus far - Luke Schenn, Jimmy Hayes, Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman, Jeff Finger - collectively they offer size, intensity, and tenacity. The acquisition of Finger clearly has Wilson's fingerprints all over it, a man who's had a good look at Finger from ice level. If the Leafs were generally looking for a defensively-minded blue-liner, its unlikely they would've pinpointed the Avs' defender of 94 games as their target. There's a method behind this madness and I hope the contract burden Finger has to bear next season doesn't get the better of the inexperienced player... and hopefully the blood-thirsty fan base gives him the opportunity to prove himself.

The comparison commonly drawn in the pundits' appraisal is to Finger's former teammate Kurt Sauer. Yesterday, Sauer signed a 4 year, $7 million deal with the Phoenix Coyotes around the same time the Leafs inked Finger to his 4 year, $14 million deal. The obvious facts - Sauer's cheaper, more experienced and probably better defensively. Some of the ignored facts:

Point totals: Jeff Finger put up 19 points last season whereas Sauer tied his career high number of 6. Finger shot the puck 93 times on the year, Sauer 25.
Time On Ice: Finger averaged 19:57 seconds per game last season. Sauer averaged 18:41. Also, Finger played more time on the powerplay than Sauer. Sauer has a slight edge in penalty killing minutes, but Finger scored a short-handed goal. Finger averaged 28 shifts a game, Sauer averaged 27.... this despite Sauer's greater experience.
Hits: A glaring deficiency of Maurice's Maple Leafs was team toughness. Finger posted 1.68 hits per game last season. Sauer sits at 0.88 hits/game. This despite Sauer's advantage in size (Sauer = 6'4, Finger = 6'1). In most of these categories, Finger only holds a slight edge. He wins this one by a fair margin.
Shots Blocked: Finger averages 1.63 shots blocked per game whereas Sauer averages 1.08.
Other Factors to Consider: Sauer is injury prone. In his two seasons as a full-time Av, Sauer has appeared in 48 and 54 games respectively.
(Helpful links: Steve over at Hockey Analysis)

The statistics seem to point to the fact that Finger is the better all-around defenseman. He's almost as strong defensively as Sauer and certainly offensively superior. A late bloomer who matured later than most, Finger's potential has not been fully realized as Sauer's has, and Sauer's potential was limited in the first place. In the footage I've seen of him, Finger is a stable, physical defensive presence and a good mover of the puck going forward. While Wilson's comments suggesting Finger's a shutdown defenseman may be slightly embroidered, Finger's got both the defensive and offensive capabilities to assume a place in the Leafs' top 4 with Bryan McCabe's exit seemingly imminent.

At this point in his career, Finger's 3.5 million dollar salary is unwarranted. Considering the circumstances of a grossly inflated market (Hainsey just went for $4.5) in which 15 teams were reportedly courting Finger, I'm willing to excuse Fletcher. If the signing is made by any of the other 29 teams, the GM is applauded for his audacity and willingness to aggressively pursue an unknown commodity with potential. In Toronto its deemed another case of managerial bungling. All I am saying is give him a chance.

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