Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher had his knuckles rapped for signing free-agent defenceman Jeff Finger Tuesday.

Moments after Finger's deal for four years and $14-million (all currency U.S.) was announced, analysts scrutinizing the moves made on the opening day of NHL free agency scratched their heads as to why Fletcher would pay the 28-year-old former Colorado Avalanche blueliner with just 94 NHL games of experience an average salary of $3.5-million.

"He's a player who is getting better," Fletcher said in defence of Finger. "There are a lot of guys in this free-agent market who are maybe past their prime or on the decline. [Finger]had his best year in the league last year and really came on in the second-half of the year.

"He's someone who has matured later. He was Colorado's shutdown guy and played well over 20 minutes a game in the last half of the season. We feel he has tremendous upside and has potential.

"There is room for improvement in his offensive numbers, but we feel he is an all-round player who will be a big addition for us."

Fletcher phoned his friend, and former Avalanche head coach, Joel Quenneville for a scouting report and Quenneville highly recommended 6-foot-1, 205-pound blueliner who played U.S. college hockey at St. Cloud State University with forward Ryan Malone, now of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Fletcher added that Finger chose the Maple Leafs over a handful of other teams.

As expected, the Leafs also brought back into the fold Curtis Joseph as a backup goaltender Tuesday, and signed speedy forward Niklas Hagman, formerly of the Dallas Stars.

Joseph agreed to a one-year, $700,000 contract, while Hagman checked in with a four-year, $12-million pact.

"With Curtis, we were looking for someone who could play 15 to 20 games, but at the same time would add a strong dimension to our dressing room," Fletcher said. "He's a character person who will help our young players and still can play at a high level."

Fletcher likes Hagman's speed and penalty-killing ability as well as his energy. The 28-year-old Finnish forward scored a career-high 27 goals with the Stars last season.

With the addition of this trio, the Leafs now have 20 players under contract, not including restricted free agents Matt Stajan and John Mitchell.

With the buyouts of Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, who both wound up signing with the Avalanche Tuesday, the Leafs have a payroll of $46.9-million - less than $10-million under the $56.7-million NHL salary cap.

Fletcher said he still is pursuing three more free agents and would like to add another defenceman and two forwards. He also made a pitch to keep veteran centre Mats Sundin in a Leafs sweater.

Asked if he was still in the hunt to sign free-agent forward Kristian Huselius, who played last season with the Calgary Flames, Fletcher replied, "I'm not sure."

There also is the matter of trying to lure former Toronto player Joe Nieuwendyk to the Leafs' front office.

"We will be talking to him in the next few days," Fletcher said.