|CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES|
|Norway's forward Mats Zuccarello Aasen (48) vies for the puck against Swiss defenceman Mark Streit (7) during a game at the Vancouver Olympics.|
So far, the Maple Leafs haven't made the same splash among NCAA free agents as they did last year other than signing Lake Superior State defenceman Simon Gysbers. In general, while the collegians are signing with various teams, there's a general sense the crop isn't as good this year.
Europe, however, may be a different matter.
The player coveted by six or more teams is Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, who many will remember as the diminutive forward who skated for Norway at the Vancouver Olympics wearing No. 48 and using an unusually long hockey stick. The Leafs are believed to be one of the teams in hot pursuit along with Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Edmonton and Chicago as this begins to turn into this year's version of the Fabian Brunnstrom Sweepstakes.
Some have nicknamed him MZA or the Norwegian Hobbit, and this week he was named the winner of the Yellow Helmet in the Swedish Elite League as MVP according to the players, a Swedish version of the Lester B. Pearson Award (which may yet be renamed the Ted Lindsay Award if the NHLPA ever gets its act together).
Zuccarello-Aasen 22, plays for Modo along with former NHLers Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Niklas Sundstrom and Dan Hinote. The 5-foot-7, 160 pound centre/left winger led the entire league in scoring.
The Leafs are clearly more interested in adding size up front, but at the same time they're on the lookout for players skilled enough to play a top six forward role in the NHL. Zuccarello-Aasen showed both a combativeness during the Olympics and an ability to succeed on the smaller North American rink.
Of the remaining NCAA free agents, meanwhile, the Leafs also continue to have interest in 6-foot-5 Vermont Catamounts forward Brayden Irwin, a UCC grad and former Brampton Battalions forward who scored 15 goals in 38 games this season with Vermont.
Gysbers is a 6-foot-4 blueliner from Richmond Hill who has already played four games for the AHL Marlies.