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Maple Leafs Watch: College UFAs a no-risk proposition

It may take a while for Brian Burke to turn the Maple Leafs into playoff threats (or threats to make the playoffs, for that matter), but the signing of Notre Dame Fighting Irish center Christian Hanson proves the GM will use every avenue possible to achieve his goals.

Hanson is a late-blooming hulk of a forward, coming in at 6-foot-4, 228 pounds. He initially came into the Notre Dame program as a checker, but has evolved into an all-around talent with offensive upside. At 23 years old, he was no longer draft eligible, which was why all Burke had to do was do a better sell job to Hanson than other NHL GMs. Look for this pattern to continue.

Being a New Englander, it was no surprise to see Burke at Boston’s Beanpot Tournament earlier in the year. The NCAA classic features Boston’s four teams: Harvard, Northeastern, Boston U. and Boston College. One of the stars of the Boston U. team, however, is another young talent eligible for free agency – defenseman Matt Gilroy.

Gilroy will be fiercely sought after by numerous teams as soon as his Terriers are done in the NCAA Frozen Four tournament and the Leafs will definitely be in the mix. The kid has size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and smarts, plus he can move the puck up the ice. He came into school as a forward, which is why no one paid attention to him at the time – he was just so-so. But as a defenseman, he has blossomed.

The third free agent getting a ton of buzz is Denver University’s Tyler Bozak, a skilled center who has shot up to 6-foot-1 after being just 5-foot-9 as an 18-year-old. Bozak could be a Leaf as soon as Thursday, but he also has a lot of suitors.

Now there is a risk-reward factor with these late bloomers. Most prospects are honed by their NHL teams since their late teens and watched over to assure they develop properly. With the older kids here, the window for them to become a forceful NHLer is much shorter.

But for the Leafs, a player such as Hanson is perfect. He wreaks havoc in opposing creases and the Buds aren’t exactly stacked in that category right now. Hanson will get his crack at the NHL, given the lack of depth currently held by Toronto in its forward corps, so if the kid can play, we’ll find out sooner than later. If he doesn’t work out, the Leafs didn’t even waste a draft pick in taking a chance. Salary cap space? Also not a problem right now.

The upside, of course, is hitting the jackpot like Boston did this year with Blake Wheeler (who has destroyed the Buds). Originally drafted by Phoenix in 2005, Wheeler attended the University of Minnesota for four years and never signed a contract with the Coyotes. Thus, he became a free agent and selected Boston over a host of suitors. Twenty goals and 42 points later, the Bruins look all the more savvy for cashing in on another team’s misfortune.

Can Hanson become the next Wheeler? It was definitely worth Brian Burke’s risk to find out.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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