I can still remember where I was that fateful morning in February of 2011. I was working in a newsroom at Humber College in Toronto, putting together a sportscast that would feature the usual doom and gloom of a Toronto sportscast. Then my phone went off and my whole day changed. From a news perspective it was simple, the Toronto Maple Leafs had finally traded Tomas Kaberle. That was great all by itself. But for me, a devout follower of all things puck, I was head over heels to see that the Leafs were able to trick the Boston Bruins into trading Joe Colborne. He was everything we needed. A big, playmaking centerman to graciously feed pucks to the likes of Phil Kessel and lead us to the promised land. Measuring a gargantuan 6’5” with a penchant for smooth passes and a powerful wrist shot, Joe Colborne was the prospect the Leafs needed to get in that deal and they got him.
Fast-forward to 2013 and things are much different. After periods of domination, tumult, and all points in between playing for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the Leafs and Joe Colborne are at something of a crossroads. His team friendly cap hit of $600K says stay. His waiver status says he’s making the club. The opportunity, either on the 3rd of 4th line, is there for the taking. But ask any Leaf fan if they are comfortable with this big ball of upside playing for their club and you have a debate on your hands. Even me, an ardent fan of Joe’s even before the trade, is left wondering if maybe it just isn’t meant to be. Where did this big boy from Calgary, Alberta leave all his magic?
It all started with his 2011-2012 season. It was a golden age for the Toronto Marlies. Down the middle they featured the talents of super prospects Nazem Kadri, and, of course, Joe Colborne. Colborne started that season on a tear, playing at an above point-per-game pace over the first 16 games or so. He was named the AHL’s player of the month at one point and was finding the back of net as well as racking up assists. He even had some guessing as to who the heir apparent down the middle was for this team between him and Kadri. But then something happened. A wrist injury hindered Colborne’s ability to shoot. By the time playoffs rolled around he was barely able to take draws and had lost all confidence in his offensive game. We all know about the effectiveness of hindsight, but many still question why Joe continued to play in the 2011-2012 season. Offseason surgery followed, and with that, Joe never got a chance to effectively train in what was one of the most important offseason’s of his career. He started the 2012-2013 season still hampered by the injury, and it showed in his production. But then something just clicked, or shall we say, popped.
About halfway through the 2012-2013 season Joe experienced what he described as a popping sensation in his wrist. Initially angry, Joe went on to discover that this sensation eased his wrist. He could shoot again. He could effectively take face offs again. The training wheels were off and Joe was back to the races, picking up where he left off prior to the injury and scoring at a near point-per-game pace to close out the season. When the Leafs made the playoffs and number one center Tyler Bozak went down with an injury, they didn’t turn to a veteran, Joe received a call up, making his NHL playoff debut playing a prominent role in the Leafs lineup and earning the confidence of head coach Randy Carlyle. The Joe that I, and many Leaf fans in 2011, fell in love with was back.
This Summer marked the first offseason in quite some time that Colborne could do what he needed to do. Bulk up, free of injury, and finally stake a true claim to a roster spot on the 2013-2014 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While some are still feeling disappointed by the development of this former first rounder, they need only look to the trials and tribulations that this player suffered through over the past two season to see that the upside is still there. To Leaf fans ready to waive this 6’5” pivot with silky smooth hockey sense and steadily improving foot speed, take a deeper look. You’ll see that the Leafs may have the foundation of exactly what you wanted down the middle coming down the pipe right in front of their eyes in Joe Colborne and eventually, 2013 first rounder Frederick Gauthier.