Wednesday July 2nd, 2008

Ask a Toronto Maple Leafs fan today how much it costs to fill his gas tank and he won't tell you an arm and a leg.

He'll probably say a Finger.

We can't say there won't be a more shocking contract offered than the one signed on Tuesday by no-name defenseman Jeff Finger, but it's going to be a tough act to follow.

Four years, $14 million. That's what the Leafs, surely bidding only against themselves, offered a 28-year-old former ECHLer with one NHL season to his credit.

Oh, and this was a player deemed so valuable by his former employers, the Colorado Avalanche, that he was relegated to the press box for five of the team's 10 postseason games.

I just double-checked the calendar and can confirm that yesterday was July 1, not April 1.

That's worth keeping in mind when you listen to the mastermind behind the deal -- Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher -- claim that Finger was one of five best defensemen in Western Conference last season. Of course, Fletcher attributed the actual quote to Joel Quenneville, probably submarining any hope the ex-Avs coach had of signing on with another NHL club in the near future. Still, you have to wonder about his ability to assess the market when he places that value on Finger while the Detroit Red Wings are paying the more accomplished Brad Stuart $15 million over the same term.

While you're mulling that over, consider Fletcher's statement that he's looking to sign a veteran defensemen out of Europe to fill the roster. At this point, you can't rule out a five-year, $25 million offer for Borje Salming.

A look at some other noteworthy activity in the first 24 hours of free agency:

Chicago signs Brian Campbell (ex-San Jose) eight years, $56.8 million, Cristobal Huet (ex-Washington) four years, $16.875

This deal might be more important in terms of perception than talent. By inking the consensus best defenseman available, the Hawks finally are back in the big time. They're now a legitimate franchise after years of aimlessly wandering through the wilderness. Campbell brings mobility and elite transition skills to a rapidly maturing, and improving, defensive corps. The deal might not go to full term, but he'll play a crucial role as the Hawks move into contention over the next five years.

GM Dale Tallon said after the Huet signing that he's perfectly happy to go with a $12 million goaltending tandem in 2008-09. More likely he's trying to prop up what little leverage he has in the trade market in hopes of moving Nikolai Khabibulin. Corey Crawford is ready to assume the backup job.

David Backes re-signs with St. Louis, three years, $7.5 million

The restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with the Canucks, the first to be offered this season. The Blues matched in a matter of hours -- no surprise considering the compensation, had they passed, would have been a second- rounder. It was a half-hearted attempt on the part of Vancouver, given that another $200,000 per year would have upped the value of the compensation to a first- and a third-rounder and at least given St. Louis something to consider.

Toronto signs Niklas Hagman (ex-Dallas), four years, $12 million

A much better signing by Fletcher, although no one should expect a repeat of Hagman's 27-goal output from last season. He's a solid two-way player, an elite grinder. He can get hot, but he's also prone to long stretches where his hands desert him. It's one thing to do that in Dallas or Miami, towns that are largely indifferent to the foibles of its hockey teams. In Toronto, the pressures will rise considerably. It'll be interesting to see how he responds.

Boston signs Michael Ryder (ex-Montreal), three years, $12 million

Bruins fans who were counting on seeing Marian Hossa wearing black and gold won't be consoled by this one, but opting instead for Ryder could prove to be one of the summer's most equitable deals. The former Hab lacks marquee value, especially coming off a brutal 14-goal campaign, but he's a legitimate top-six winger whose term and dollar value won't completely hamstring a team that is likely to be up against the cap by the time there's a ruling in Dennis Wideman's arbitration case.

Playing with either Marc Savard or Patrice Bergeron, and getting the time on the power play he was denied last season should see Ryder regain his 30-goal form, and he'll bring the body more frequently than Glen Murray, who seems certain to be dealt or bought out before the season starts.

New York Rangers sign Wade Redden (ex-Ottawa) six years, $39 million

The Rangers have to hope they bought six years of the pre-2006 Redden, a player who could fill the void in their transition game and add some punch to their power play. If they get the Redden of the past two seasons, they'll be stuck with a second-pairing defender whose passion for the game appears to have ebbed. The Rangers have to believe that a change of scenery may cure what's ailed him, or this deal might look nearly as bad as the Finger signing in short order.

New York Islanders sign Mark Streit (ex-Montreal) four years, $20.5 million

No one will mistake Streit for a defensive stalwart, but his offensive abilities should provide a boost to a power play that ranked 29th last season.

Detroit signs Ty Conklin (ex-Pitsburgh) one year, $750,000

Another savvy deal by Ken Holland. Conklin's play during Marc-Andre Fleury's convalescence was as big a part of Pittsburgh's regular season success as Evgeni Malkin. He'll provide stability as the backup, and a nice bridge until the Wings sign Ryan Miller next July.

Colorado signs Darcy Tucker (ex-Toronto) two years, $4.5 million; Andrew Raycroft (ex-Toronto) one year, $800,000

Apparently the Avs have found other avenues to spend money than on a competent pro scouting department.

Columbus signs Mike Commodore (ex-Ottawa) five years, $18.75 million

Nearly four million per over five years for a guy best suited for third-pairing duty? This speaks as much to the Blue Jackets' need to hit the salary cap floor as it does Commodore's desirability on the open market.

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