Maple Leafs Watch: College free agents worth signing

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In the 16 games the Maple Leafs have left in this season, their prospects will have ample time to audition for a permanent NHL job next year.

Players such as Nazem Kadri and Luca Caputi may stick with the Leafs by the time the 2010-11 campaign kicks off, but if the franchise has any hope of making the playoffs next season, they can’t do so with a similar amount of inexperience on the roster.

There’s no doubt the Leafs need to supplement their youth movement with some veteran know-how. Unfortunately, here’s where that road gets bumpy: the NHL’s pool of unrestricted free agents this summer looks as shallow as a beauty pageant judge.

That’s why ex-Leaf Matt Stajan was signed to a four-year, $14 million contract by Calgary last month; Flames GM Darryl Sutter knew if Stajan were allowed to test the free agent market, $3.5 million a year might be a bargain.

So if the odds of improving the Leafs through free agency are slim – and considering Toronto won’t have their first or second round pick at the entry draft – how will GM Brian Burke strengthen his organization?

One option is the same one management leaned on last year: undrafted college free agents.

Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson were both wooed by Burke (and other GMs) before they signed with Toronto. Here are a few current undrafted collegians who might become prominent in the Leafs’ plans:

Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack College: The smallish (5-foot-11) forward has 44 points in 31 games this season and is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award as the collegiate game’s top player.

Bobby Butler, New Hampshire: Butler is co-captain of his NCAA team and also is a candidate for the Hobey Baker. Like Da Costa, the winger isn’t huge (6-feet even).

Sebastian Stalberg, Vermont: The younger brother of current Leaf Viktor Stalberg is a freshman and will need time to develop.

Brayden Irwin, Vermont: The Toronto native is a defenseman, a position the Leafs are relatively stocked at. But he’s 6-foot-5, a fact that almost certainly will interest Burke.

This column also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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