Dear Jeff Finger,
It’s not your fault. Really it isn’t. In fact, you deserved better.
When you left Colorado after the 2007-08 season and became a free agent, you seemed to be the definition of a late-bloomer. After spending three years at St. Cloud State and four more in the AHL, you crept into the NHL with five points in your first 22 games, and 19 points in your first full season.
If you were 21 people would say it’s the start of a promising career.
Instead you were really just a guy who had waited, and waited for his shot, finally got it, and made good.
When you hit the free-agency market that summer, there were bound to be suitors: You had proven that you could move the puck, you were tough, and you were willing to do anything to keep the puck out of your own net. In your last season in Colorado, you were fourth on the team in blocks (with two of the three guys ahead of you playing ten more games), first on the team in hits, you had the fourth-best plus-minus rating, and you averaged basically 20:00 a game.
If you had to make a comparison to another NHL player, you’d be Greg Zanon with a better offensive game.
So when you hit the market, GM’s took note of your track record. They probably considered a lot: The fact that you had spent years learning the game at both the collegiate and AHL levels; The fact that you didn't have much experience at the NHL level; and the possibility that your development could go one of two ways with more NHL time: You could become a good mid-to-low pairing shutdown defender, or you might flame out.
General Managers around the league came calling with different offers, but obviously the best one was the one handed to you by then-Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher. It was for four seasons, at $3.5-million—per SEASON.
When most of us heard about it, we thought that the $3.5-million was for those four seasons—we were wrong.
Now, no one can blame you for taking that deal (Can anyone honestly say that they wouldn’t have had they been offered the same thing?). The unfortunate part, is that it had already cost you your time in Toronto.
Instead of being the quality defenseman that you had grown into over the years, people expected you to be great and meet that hefty price tag.
Despite your first year being nicked by a few injuries, you did alright. You ended up fourth on the team in scoring by defensemen with 23 points in 66 games, and were a minus-seven. While that last number is less-than-ideal, it was nothing compared to Pavel Kubina’s minus-15, Nik Antropov’s minus-13, or even the minus-eight from Tomas Kaberle.
You also averaged the fifth-most ice time on a team that allowed nearly 300 goals, thanks in large part to very weak goaltending. Suddenly that minus rating is put in pretty good perspective.
Then, as fans of a losing team always do, people started looking for a scapegoat. There of course was the goaltending and the miscast forwards, and sadly, you. Your price tag made you a prime candidate to be picked on. A defenseman who was making a little too much and was a relative unknown? You were getting it handed to you.
That off-season it became more and more apparent that you were not going to be a long-term piece in the team’s plans. Brian Burke came in and brought in three new defensemen and you went from playing nearly 70 games one year to just 39 the next. You still mustered 10 points, but this time your were a minus-11. Again, the squad as a whole was pretty much awful, but it was you (and your contract’s) fault.
Basically this all came to a head earlier this week when you were re-assigned to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. The prevailing phrases were “finally”, “thank goodness”, and “good riddance” amongst Leaf fans.
But you know what? I don’t think you got a fair shake. That contract weighed heavily on everything you did and I think you handled all of the pressure and complaints pretty admirably. You did well in what little time you got, and hopefully more than just one or two Leaf fans will miss you.
You’ll land on your feet somewhere Jeff, but here’s something that will hopefully get you to that next point in your life:
Thank you. Thank you for putting up with all of the irrationalities that comes with playing for the rabid fan base of a sputtering team. Thank you for making the most out of what became limited ice time. And thank you in advance, for taking those AHL defenders under your wing, and showing them a thing or two.
It’s the least anyone can do.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.