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What will Joe Colborne be in Toronto?

With the never-ending lockout still leaving us all NHL-free, it's likely fewer folks are dropping by VLM in recent weeks and I can understand why.  But I do miss the usual conversation that many of us have had over the past three plus years here, though I realize it's difficult for readers and visitors to get cranked up about Maple Leaf-related issues when there are no games happening.

But if you are here today, there are some recent stories that you might have missed that may be of interest...

  • Some memories from the spring of  '93
  • Something for NHL players to think about before another season goes down the tubes
  • Why I don't like the idea of Morgan Rielly being invited to Leaf camp with a chance to make the team
  • Pat Quinn was just named to the Order of Canada- some thoughts on the former Leaf coach


I think most Leaf fans were pretty excited when we acquired Joe Colborne (along with Boston’s first round pick in the 2011 entry draft, which eventually helped turn into Tyler Biggs, if I’m not mistaken) a couple of seasons ago before the 2011 NHL trading deadline.  That was the major deal which saw long-time Leaf defenseman Tomas Kaberle move to the Bruins.  Colborne is, in hockey terms, a big body, and as  a former first-round draft pick of the Bruins in 2008 (16th overall)  he naturally came with significant expectations. The fact that he was/is a centre - and that we have long needed a big-time player in the middle - meant he would receive a lot of attention in Leafworld as his development unfolded.

As recently as this past spring, then Leaf executive Rick Dudley (now working with the Habs) predicted Colborne would be a second-line center with the blue and white as early as this season (those who remember that particular interview can correct me if I have misinterpreted Dudley’s comments…). 

Now, we can, to a certain extent, set aside Dudley’s high praise for Colborne as the kind of thing we expect someone in his position to say.  But perhaps he was also offering what we can hope was simply an honest appraisal of a good young player.  Colborne is indeed young and does have the size—and legs—to be a major-league player from what I have seen.  But what I’m trying to determine is exactly where he will fit in the Leaf picture once the NHL returns (that’s going to happen at some point, right?) and what kind of player he will be.

When I watch him with the Marlies (and I acknowledge that I have not focused on him as much as I should when I check out the Leaf farm team in action) I see a guy who seems to have good vision, someone who sees the ice pretty well.  You need that to be an NHL center, of course, though I’m not sure he is exceptional in that regard.  I do like the fact the he will often find the open man and can make some sweet passes, so I would argue he has the hands to be an NHL’er.  He can move fairly well, but I wouldn’t say he is a gifted skater or terribly fleet afoot.

At 6 foot 5, you’d like to see him use that size more, though I don’t think he’s a timid player by any means.  There is no question it often takes “big” men, those tall centers especially, time to grow into their frames (and their significant on-ice responsibilities at the center position) and find their game at the highest levels.  I think back to a young Leaf like Jack Valiquette in the mid-1970s.  He was supposed to be another Phil Esposito-type because he had height and size and, like Phil, while not the world’s best skater, had a knack for putting the puck in the net.  While Valiquette had an OK NHL career in Toronto, he was pushed to the NHL too soon for my liking and I don’t think he ever quite had the career he perhaps could or should have had.

In more recent times the Leafs of course drafted and developed Nik Antropov, the enigmatic forward/center who seemed to be forever perceived as an under-achiever in blue and white.  Tall and, in the minds of some fans at least,  a bit fragile, he was hurt a lot, but also played through many injuries in his time in Toronto.  Fair or not, maybe because of his size and somewhat limited skating ability, he always seemed to leave us wanting more.

When I see Colborne play I sometimes draw a modest connection or parallel in my mind to someone like Dustin Penner, the often-infuriating but now two-time Stanley Cup champion center with the LA Kings (formerly with the Oilers and Ducks).  When Penner “wants” to play (he might take offense to that characterization—players will always claim they “want” to play their hardest) he can be a dominant offensive performer.  He can also play with a bit of an edge, and while he is not usually the most physical guy on the ice at all times, he can play the body and generally use his size to advantage.

But those are all other players.  They  don't necessarily give us any genuine insight into what Colborne might become.  So in Toronto, a reasonable question is: what will Joe Colborne be?  Will he add 15 pounds of muscle at some point and become a more complete, physical, all-around forward?  Will he play tough enough often enough to take opposition forwards off their game?  He doesn’t seem to have a big mean streak, and that’s OK—provided he brings other things to the table.

Will he be a “top-six” scorer at the NHL level?  Or will he settle into more of a contributor role, a guy who can, say, kill penalties and be a high-end third-line checker who might also chip in with big goals on occasion?

His “numbers” at the AHL level are modest so far this season (1 goal, 6 points in 16 games with the Marlies).  But he is a plus player and we all recognize that AHL offensive prowess is no surefire guarantee of success at the NHL level, anyway.  There are some guys who shoot lights out in the minors and for whatever reason (ex-Leaf and Marlie junior star Bruce Boudreau was one of those in the ‘70s and ‘80s) that doesn’t translate at the next level.  Heck, there are a few guys in the AHL right now like that.

Similarly, there are players who put up smallish offensive numbers at the AHL, but become meaningful role-players once they hit the NHL because of their defensive diligence, game-awareness and ability to take on certain responsibilities.  Also, some individuals simply play better in the more structured  NHL than they do in the AHL.

Last season the suggestion was that a serious wrist injury prevented Colborne from making plays and producing as he is capable of—though he did earn 5 points in 10 games as a call-up to the big club late last season.  This year, to my knowledge, he is relatively healthy, but perhaps still recovering.

I sense Colborne is growing as an overall player, albeit a bit slowly.  He would probably appreciate some stability in his young career.  In 2010-'11, as I mentioned above, he was traded in his first full AHL season and played for two different teams, after finishing the previous season in the AHL after  his time with Denver University.  Last season he played hurt, so we need to recognize that he likely needs some time to develop and feel comfortable and settled.  He turns 23 early in the new year but has lots of time to hit his stride. There is no urgency for him to be a star right now, though sometimes I’d like to see a bit more urgency in his game.  

All that said, I’d mostly like to hear from you—including those who have had the opportunity to watch him closely, in person, game in and game out with the Marlies.  What do you see in Colborne?  Where do you project him with the Leafs?  If our current lineup was not clogged at center ice (not that we have a ton of elite players at that position, but we do already have Grabovski, Bozak, Connolly, Kadri—if Carlyle plays him there—Steckel and McClement and maybe even van Riemsdyk) where do you think Colborne should be playing with the Leafs at some point?

On that note, the center-ice logjam may ease next season if various contracts expire, etc..  Presumably, if there is a season in 2013-’14, this could be a very different-looking Leaf roster by then, and Colborne could be a big part of it.

It’s still early in the AHL season, not even 20 games in.   But do you think Colborne will be (or should be) a factor with the Leafs soon—based on how he has played this season and what you see in his game?


  1. I'm not that hopeful about Colborne. I would be surprised if he played any large part in the Leafs future. Number one centre? I don't think so. He should be dominating the AHL at this point. In games so far this season you could notice the NHL bound guys. Komorov, Gardiner, Frattin, Ranger, Kadri all stick out because they do things that AHL guys can't consistently do.

    I don't see that with Colborne. I think the best you get with Colborne is a player somewhat like Kyle Brodziak who is 6'2" 210lbs. Brodziak gets about 30 points an NHL season and that's what I think you get with Colborne for his best NHL years.

    Perhaps he breaks out, but I have more faith in Kadri and Frattin.

  2. Thanks DP. I appreciate a non-flowery, honest assessment.

  3. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will take another year (or two) to fully 'grow into' his rather large frame. Given that we have Barb Underhill working on his skating and I can't believe that he has recovered much strength in his (left?) arm (after the wrist fracture and finger injury), I am hoping we are able to let him develop as a possibly significant 'late bloomer'.

    Colborne clearly has the character to play through injury (and late growth spurts)... I hope we can reward that with further patience!

    In two years, if we're having the same discussion with no apparent signs of improvement, THEN I would think he has a lower ceiling. Right now, I still think he could become a #2 guy (or a possible low-level # 1 guy who could be effective with Kessel - if we still have him by then!).

    Anything less than 2 more full seasons of development before decision, may come back to haunt us - big time!

    The fact that we have all the other prospects who look closer to the NHL, should give us room to give him time to grow (hopefully in strength and skills, rather than another 'spurt').

    IF management desires a big center sooner, then others who feel as I do about Colborne, will probably ask for him in a trade. Sometimes other teams can afford to be more patient, so it could become a win-win trade.

  4. Patience is indeed the watchword here, InTimeFor62. Players with Colborne's frame usually need extra time to develop. He may be one of those. I don't think we need to be in a hurry for him to be an impact guy here. If he eventually becomes a top-line guy, great.

  5. I had high hopes for Joe Colborne going into last season. The pre-injury Colborne gave us a taste of what could be. The injury hampered him severely.

    I don't believe he is fully recovered. He has not captured his early 2111-12 form but I still have those high hopes. The package is exactly what the Leafs need...a big centre who is a good playmaker, has an excellent wrist shot and will crash the net.

    If he becomes the NHL hockey player that many think he will it will be well worth the wait. Patience on the part of the Leafs may be the telling factor.

    By the way, congratulations to the Toronto Argonauts. As a season ticket holder way back when (I was at their first game at Exhibition Stadium)I thoroughly enjoyed the Grey Cup game, albeit through television. Now if only the Leafs can emulate them.

  6. We can hope that what we began to see two seasons ago was the real deal, PeteCam. There are certainly plenty of players who have struggled to find their form after an injury- and while they were working their way back to full health. It's also tough to regain that inner confidence. Colborne could certainly be in that category.

    Thanks PeteCam. (By the way, I have fond memories of being a young Argo fan in the '60s....Dick Shatto was my favourite. Dave Mann. Then Bill Symons and those good Leo Cahill teams...leading into Jim Corrigal and Granny Liggins in the mid '70s...)