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Fletcher Playing A Game Of Poker

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Gentlemen, the name of the game is poker.

At least, that’s the game Cliff Fletcher is playing.

The Leafs interim general manager has nudged the Leafs back into the news with a trio of signings and acquisitions.

First, he pried Niklas Hagman from the Dallas Stars with a four-year contract.

Then he rewarded Jeff Finger, a lightly-known defenceman with the Colorado Avalanche with a four-year-deal.

And Thursday, Fletcher obtained centreman Mikhail Grabovski from the Montreal Canadiens in return for the player the Leafs chose in the fifth-round this year, defenceman Greg Pateryn and, significantly, the Leafs second rounder in 2010.

The first two picks were safer. The third involves a significant choice.

Signing Hagman comes with little downside. Yes, he enjoyed a career-high 27 goal season but his hallmark as an NHLer has been his willingness to compete every night. If he scores 20 he helps. Hagman brings plenty of skill and he addresses the Leafs ample list of needs nicely. He is fast, honest and defensively conscientious.

Finger and Grabovski limited their futures in their respective cities. Finger took heat from the Avalanche coaching staff in Game 3 of a playoff against Minnesota when he didn’t get to a puck behind his net that just needed a touch for icing.  The Wild recovered the puck and scored. Finger was sent to the press box and played in only five of the Avs' 10 post-season games.

Likewise, Grabovski left the team he was playing for, the Montreal Canadiens late last season and tried to go back to the American League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. He apologized to his team but the move, prompted by unlimited playing time in Hamilton and spotty use by the Canadiens, probably greased his exit from Montreal.

And no, they aren’t measuring either guy for a plaque at the Hall of Fame. Finger labored for nearly four years in the AHL before hitting the bigs. Carlo Colaiacovo has played more NHL games than Finger (101-94).

Grabovski, 24, has played only 24 NHL games and he has three goals to show for it.

But when you have missed the playoffs three years running, when you cut loose Darcy Tucker and Kyle Wellwood and stated your intention to do the same to Bryan McCabe, when your captain and 32-goal scorer may or may not come back, you’d better do something.

Scouts describe Finger as a guy who is tough to play against. A laconic skater, he is a very hard hitter and he competes. He better not be in your top pairing but he is improving steadily and he can help the Leafs as they continue to establish a defensive identity under new coach Ron Wilson.

Grabovski brings above NHL skills to the Leafs. He is not big, about five-foot-11 but solidly built. Observers in Hamilton say while Grabovski was out of the lineup last season with a recurring ankle problem he spent virtually every spare moment in the gym.

He has explosive speed, another quality the Leafs lacked and could spend time as a centreman on the second power play unit. He is equally adept as a scorer and playmaker and he jumps into spots fearlessly. Grabovski can’t check his hat so what happens when he meets the defensively demanding Wilson should be interesting.

He is also, and this applies to Finger as well, known to be a good guy. A native of Belarus, Grabovski worked tirelessly at learning English in Hamilton and became fond of hanging out in the Bulldogs front office. It’s a tradition there for staff to celebrate birthdays with cake during working hours. When Grabovski’s birthday came along, he bought a big cake to share with the staff.

None of these personnel moves, of course, will do much to move the needle of the Leafs future. But Fletcher promised change and to get it he is indulging in risky propositions. You’ve heard of buy low, sell high. He’s buying high and hoping. He has to.  Nobody seems willing to give him a sure thing.

It comes down to this. By rolling the dice, Cliff Fletcher is doing what he said he would
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