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College route may yield high grades

In the 16 games the Maple Leafs have left in this season, theirprospects will have ample time to audition for a permanent NHL job nextyear.

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, it 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 was allowed to test the free agent market, $3.5 million per year might be a bargain.

So if the odds of improving the Leafs through free agency are slim — and considering Toronto won’t have its first- or second-round pick at the next 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 both were 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 (five-foot-11) forward has 44 points in 31 games this season and is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award as the U.S. 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 (six-feet).

• 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 defenceman, a position the Leafs are relatively stocked at. But he’s six-foot-five, a fact that almost certainly will interest Burke.

 
 
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