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Maple Leafs Watch: College free agents worth signing

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 THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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