Being Fingered: Jeff and the Seventh Man

     Jeff Finger’s name may be rampant with tireless innuendo, but few Leafs fans were laughing when interim GM Cliff Fletcher tied the unknown, but apparently much coveted Colorado Avalanche defenseman to a four year, $14 million contract in the summer of 2008.

    Working out at $3.5 million a year, the ultra late developing Finger went from no name, to fifth highest earner on the blue ribbon Leafs payroll creating a maelstrom of discontent amongst fans that remains to this day.

    From full term college player and three year AHL blue liner with only 94 games of (then) experience in the big leagues, Finger quickly became synonymous as the “man with the contract,” reddening faces further still in the land of blue and white where the overpay became talk of free agency.

    An oversight on the part of Fletcher who was undertaking systemic roster cleansing in preparedness for an new era? The sharp focus brought on by the proclaimed “dud of the day” helped embarrass Leafs Nation into believing Finger was a traditional Toronto bust and has, in the meantime, clouded a serviceable top six defender whose utilitarian play proves to have a lot to like.

    Not to say Finger isn’t overpriced, but one can hardly criticize a projected career journeyman for signing on the golden line no more than argue with the bump and grind figures Finger brought to the table in 2008-’09. 30th amongst defensemen in hits despite having played only 66 games and 18th in shots blocked, Finger also posted the 22nd best shot percentage amongst defenders in the league (over 40 games played) while serving top pairing minutes on the penalty kill.

    It may not be readily apparent as a skill set on a shift-by-shift basis but Finger, whose -7 was by no means a team worst, has a body of work that puts him in esteemed company, part justifying his place on the team, if not the exorbitant contract that proceeds him.

    Little surprise then that Brian Burke expects to see Jeff Finger in the top six come opening night, foregoing injury or providence on the part of Ron Wilson. Touting his preferred defensive lineup recently to Adnan Virk of Leafs TV fame, Burke named Finger amongst the expected protagonists: Komisarek, Schenn, Beauchemin and Kaberle and a curveball in the form of Garnet Exelby.

    That name dump certainly provides an entertaining possibility on the third pairing. Assuming the more illustrious four remain top pairing locks, Garnet Exelby would, by deduction, become Fingers partner.

    Amassing 6 goals in 357 games, Exelby is a stone footed plumber who can land terrifying hits. In essence his inclusion in a Burkian side makes sense and in tandem with Finger would be the equivalent of a cattle catcher on a zamboni. With Toskala et al all too often screened by a defensive core that simply couldn’t clear the crease, not only will Exelby and Finger be a potentially brutal if immobile wall, they will also provide some much needed down and dirty mat sweeping.

    Of course this leaves Ian White and Mike Van Ryn out in the cold. Having missed 11 games after struggling to assert himself in the initial lineup last season, Ian White went on to be a revelation posting 26 points in the remaining 71 games (albeit only 3 more points than Finger). Although a mobile puck carrier(a poor man’s Oduya), White’s size and subsequent difficulties with bigger forwards have likely counted against him in Burke’s land of giants.

    Meanwhile Mike Van Ryn may have been made of glass these past two years and the epitome of hard luck, but when he strung a bunch of games together MVR seemed to become almost talismanic on the Leafs blueline. The closest thing to a puck moving defender outside of Kaberle, Van Ryn’s smart game is tempered only by his tendency to injure and that alone will cast him as cover in the short term.

    Regardless of their individual intricacies; with Finger a solid, and lets face it, unmovable commodity, Exelby prized by Burke and Van Ryn and White on the outside looking in, not to mention both Oreskovic and Frogren in the minors; Toronto has a wealth of riches in defensive depth that appears almost disparate to a young crop of forwards lacking apparent cohesion.

    Presuming all six of Burke’s chosen d-men suit up on opening night, the current situation offers another tantalizing possibility; icing a seventh defender, almost certainly White, in the vein of Stanley Cup champions Pittsburgh. With White able to pivot from defense to forward as evidenced last season, a seventh man with offensive capabilities would allow Wilson to smoothly change strategy on the fly as well as providing relief for the defensive core on special team duties.

    Powering the Penguins through the playoffs after Sergei Gonchar’s injury and through his return, the seven part Penguins defense became a useful rehabilitation tool in playoff hockey and while relatively untested in the regular season, could provide a solution to the Maple Leafs back end logjam. That is, if the expected trade of at least one defensive component fails to materialize come October.

    As for Finger, unlikely to play any part in trade talks, his game is not going to be hurting the team this season or next unless he suffers a dramatic collapse of form. Worth $3.5 million, perhaps not, but he remains a valuable and overtly maligned asset to the Leafs nonetheless.