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Finger knows pressure comes with contract

by Dan Rosen

Jeff Finger is eager to show that, despite having only 94 NHL games with Colorado under his belt at the age of 28, he's a worthy investment for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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Yes, Jeff Finger was surprised, too.

"I didn't know how high it was going to go," the Toronto Maple Leafs' newest defenseman told Thursday when asked about the four-year contract he signed Tuesday. "I didn't really know what to expect when July 1 came. A lot of people are probably surprised by the numbers, including myself."

Finger realizes most of Toronto's fans have no idea who is he -- "They didn't get to see me at all last year," the former member of the Colorado Avalanche said -- which is why he's not surprised that a lot of eyebrows went up when the local media reported the terms of his contract, the value of which was not disclosed by the team.

Finger and Toronto's brass believe that once the 2008-09 season begins, Leafs Nation will get past the surprise factor and realize there is a good defenseman wearing the classic blue and white.

"It's exciting. It's nerve wracking. It's scary in some ways to go to a market like this, but I'm just really excited and anxious to get up there and to prove myself in a market of this caliber," Finger said. "It's the biggest hockey market in the world, bar none. It's going to definitely be exciting. When things go good, it's great there. When they go bad, it's really tough. The only thing that is going to talk is my play."

His play last season did enough talking to make a believer out of Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who faced Finger four times as the coach of the San Jose Sharks. Wilson then convinced GM Cliff Fletcher to consider Finger despite the fact that he is 28 years old and has played in only 94 NHL games.

"I don't think you guys know Jeff Finger very well, but I faced Finger last year and in the Western Conference he was the most improved defenseman from the beginning of the season to the end," Wilson told Toronto area reporters. "He was the defenseman that played heads up with Joe Thornton and he did a really good job. I talked to (former Avs coach) Joel Quenneville to get the feel for him, and Joel swore by him."

For good reason, considering Finger is a plus-22 player over his 94 games, including plus-12 with 19 points in 72 games this past season. As a first-year player in 2006-07, Finger was a plus-10 with five points in 22 games.

"We played quite a few times against each other and he was a tough player to play against," said Niklas Hagman, a former Dallas winger who also signed with the Leafs on Tuesday. "He was maybe not that flashy when it comes to offense, but really hard to play against. He's a strong defenseman."

Fletcher called Finger, "a late bloomer," and added, "unfortunately in Toronto the Western Conference is in a different universe, but believe me, he's a real good hockey player and he was sought after by many, many teams."

Finger said his late development -- he played three years at St. Cloud State and then another three and a half in the minors before becoming an NHL regular last season -- is directly related to the opportunity for more ice time he received this past season.

"In any player's development, ice time is a big part of it, and Quenneville and Colorado gave me that," Finger said. "I felt I grew as a player and as a person. It was a great experience."

That development led to Tuesday, when the Leafs presented Finger his first long-term contract. Finger said he has no personal relationships with any of the current members of the Leafs roster, but his agent, Neil Sheehy, also represents Jason Blake.

"I just spoke to my agent about things and he has Jason Blake, so he knows a few things about Toronto," Finger said. "As he said, it's a huge commitment and it can be a really tough place or a really great place. They have been struggling for a couple of years now and I'm sure it hasn't gotten any easier, but I know it's unacceptable for their organization and the city."

Finger remembers watching the Leafs on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada thanks to the bunny ears on his television. He lived in Houghton, Mich., which is on the northern tip of the state and directly across Lake Superior from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Although he says he was more of a Red Wings fan, his knowledge of the Leafs and their status in the hockey universe made his ears perk up like a dog's would when Fletcher called him directly.

"To hear that the actual Toronto Maple Leafs are interested in you, it was a surreal feeling," Finger said. "It definitely got my attention."

So, too, did the length and value of the contract. In fact, it's three days later and Finger still can't believe what transpired Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it," he said. "It's pretty crazy. I'm just finally coming back down to earth."

Reality will set in soon enough. Finger, who is not married, but has a girlfriend, Caroline, of three years, knows it's almost time for him to head to Toronto to find a place to live. Then camp will open and eventually the season will start.

That's when Finger and his contract will be under intense scrutiny.

He can't wait for the challenge.

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