Leafs in the hunt for “Norwegian Hobbit”

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    After tonight’s snoozer, let’s move on to a bigger and better subject.

    Some of you may have watched a surprising Norway side battle Switzerland to the bitter end for a quarterfinal birth in their final preliminary game at the Olympics; if so, try to recall a 5’7, 160-pound speedster working a stick as tall as the man himself.


    That player was center/left winger Mats Zuccarello Aasen, the subject of “hot pursuit” on the part of Leafs management as well as at least six other NHL clubs (including Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Edmonton and Chicago), according to a report today from the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox.

    The story I’ve gathered behind the ’87-born 22-year-old through choppy Norwegian-English translation of the archives is this:

    A high-scoring 2007-08 season with the Frisk Tigers of the Norwegian First Division garnered attention from the top SEL clubs including Farjestads and Modo. Farjestad, riddled by injuries at the time, was said to be making a play on Mats during the ’07-’08 season but couldn’t get him signed before the international transfer window closed on January 31. After signing with Modo in the off-season of 2008, Zuccarello-Aasen went on to post a 40-point campaign of 12 goals and 28 assists in 35 games in a league which only counts primary helpers. He has doubled his goal-total in his second SEL season, posting 23 goals and 41 assists for 64 points in 55 games played.

    Cox writes: “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.”

    Swedish hockey legend and Farjestads general manager Per Hakan Loob spoke of Aasen in 2008:

    “It would have been wrong of me to say that Mats Zuccarello Aasen is not a player we see as hugely exciting.”

    Loob described Aasen as a proper, technical player with strong skating skills and believed he could translate that combination successfully in the Elitserien and become a “hit.”

    Norwegian assistant coach Anders Blegeberg similarly saw Aasen as an “up and comer with great potential.”

    These talent analyses have to be kept within context. Both men were speaking to Mats’ potential on European ice. Blegeberg drew comparisons to the likes of Steve Kariya and Patrick Yetman, both diminutive forwards who have enjoyed success in the SEL and other top European leagues but, as witnessed first hand in Kariya’s case, couldn’t deal with the size and strength of the NHL grind.

    At 5’7, 160 pounds, size alone would suggest he’s very much up against it in trying to translate his Euro success onto smaller NHL ice and against bigger, stronger, faster opposition (he does appear to have NHL reach, however). Clearly Burke and co. view him as an experiment worth trying. What is there to lose, after all.

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