TORONTO– In his final year of a four-year contract, Jeff Finger is doing his best to make the most of his opportunity with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
At 32 years of age (on December 18th), the veteran defenseman has been removed from the NHL for two seasons but this year he was given the “A” to wear on his chest, symbolizing his role as one of the development team’s top leaders.
“It’s a good feeling to be a leader and have that veteran type role,” said Finger. “Do you want to be in the American league? No. But you try to make the best of a situation and were having fun and were winning so it’s all good.”
“Fingers great,” said fellow blue liner Korbinian Holzer. “He’s an unbelievable leader and a great guy inside and outside the locker room. He helps the young guys and you can talk to him whenever you want.”
“I like Finger,” said head coach Dallas Eakins. “He’s always played hard for me, he’s a good leader and his teammates really enjoy him. He plays a hard game, puts his body on the line every time the puck comes in our zone and surprisingly he’s quite good on our offensive cycles. He has a big shot. I have a lot of time for Jeff Finger.”
Having signed a contract in 2008 that pays him $3.5 million per season, most argue that Finger has never lived up to what the Toronto Maple Leafs organization wanted from him on the blue line; thus his demotion to the farm team.
Sending him down was the simplest way to free up the remaining $7 million they would owe him against the salary cap.
But the assignment to the Marlies only came after exploring other options with teams within the NHL.
“There was discussion,” said Finger, when asked about being traded to a team that would give him time in the NHL. “In a lot of ways their hands are tied though. With the salary cap era it’s a totally different game. It’s a lot harder to move players with bigger salaries. That’s just the way it goes.”
The native of Houghton, Michigan was signed by Cliff Fletcher before Brian Burke took over as Leafs general manager and, even with the heavy contract, Finger never seemed to be part of the long term plan Burke wanted to instil as the new guy in town.
But being a professional through all the rumours and critics, Finger says he’s okay with how things turned out for him in Toronto.
“There’s no bitterness, everyone got what they wanted,” he said about the situation he’s in as a member of the Maple Leafs organization. “They got me down here to make some room up here. I came in with the old GM and Brian made some moves. I think I’m the same player I’ve always been, the same player that signed that contract.”
When his contract runs out at the end of this season, it’s almost certain Finger will not be sticking around. That’s why with the “A” on his chest and his body the healthiest it’s been since he moved from the ACC to the Ricoh Coliseum, he’s hoping to show he can still have a value to an NHL organization.
“You want to showcase yourself and put your best foot forward,” he said. “I think many teams are aware of the situation and how it went down here but in my mind it’s not a question of if I can play up there; it’s just catching on somewhere.”
“As for leaving a mark in another GM’s mind, I just want to be a solid player every night.”