Fletcher gives Leafs Finger

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

With Bryan McCabe about to get the boot, Cliff Fletcher paid dearly to give the Maple Leafs defence the Finger.

But the general manager is convinced free agent Jeff Finger is part of the answer for his blue line, at $14 million US for four years, with at least one more defenceman and forward to be added by free agency or trade.

Finger and Finnish-born left winger Niklas Hagman (four years, $12 million) topped yesterday's opening of shopping for the Leafs, who also brought home Curtis Joseph to play out his last days as a backup goalie for $700,000.

Finger didn't come cheap for a player who ended the season in the Avs' doghouse for a second-round playoff blunder, but taking the season as a whole, he was a late-blooming, hard-hitting 6-footer who went as high as 22 minutes a game and can play in Toronto's top four.

WHOPPING RAISE

At 28, he and Hagman fit Fletcher's profile as hungry players who want to commit to a young Leafs team. Finger made less than half a million with the Colorado Avalanche last year, but Fletcher thought he can be successfully paired with an offensive player such as Tomas Kaberle or Pavel Kubina and therefore is worth such a whopping raise.

"Have you seen some of the salaries today?" Fletcher said. "It looks like we got a bargain basement defenceman. He has got bite to his game."

Coach Ron Wilson was won over when Finger went head-to-head with big Joe Thornton in Colorado-San Jose games and came out the winner.

Finger can be called a closet Canuck, hailing from tiny Hancock, Mich., the most northerly town in the state, across Lake Superior from Thunder Bay.

"We used to get CBC and Hockey Night on the bunny ears and I grew up watching the Leafs," Finger said last night. "I knew some teams were interested, but I never thought of Toronto. I'm sure a lot of people there are wondering 'who the heck is this guy', but I hope to prove myself in this market."

Fletcher and coach Ron Wilson saluted goalie Vesa Toskala for selling his countryman Hagman on the Leafs.

"Vesa was like the Toronto chamber of commerce," Wilson said. "Niklas is a quality character. And he told me on the phone that he was happy to be in a place where hockey was No. 1 after playing in Florida and Dallas."

Wilson initially envisions Hagman on an "energy-grinding" line, perhaps with Jamal Mayers, but if the Leafs can't get a centre to replace Mats Sundin, Hagman's 27 goals might look good on the first line with Nik Antropov shifted to the middle.

Fletcher continues to tip-toe around the McCabe issue, having tried to trade the alternate captain after his remaining $16.4-million contract proved too expensive to buy out. But McCabe has no interest in moving and the Leafs can't really stop him if he comes to camp, even though some clubs might want a player such as him just to reach the cap floor of $40 million.

"It's not a subject I will discuss at this time," Fletcher said of McCabe.

With the Islanders signing Mark Streit, any chance of him going to Long Island now is out.

Ron Hainsey is believed to be another defenceman the Leafs are considering.

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JEFF FINGER

Age: 28

Hometown: Hancock, Mich.

Drafted: 240th overall by Colorado in 1999.

Career Stats: 94 GP, 9 G, 14,

The Skinny: Had 208 penalty minutes as a teenager for Green Bay of the USHL ... Partnered with the Avs' Ruslan Salei last season.

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NIKLAS HAGMAN

Age: 28

Hometown: Espoo, Finland

Drafted: 70th overall by the Florida Panthers in 1999

Career stats: 481 GP, 80 G, 85 A

The skinny: With dad Matti Hagman is part of the first father and son Finns in the NHL.


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