|(above) Joe Colborne will center the Maple Leafs first line tonight in his NHL debut|
by James Mirtle
There might as well have been one big question mark skating in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey at practice on Friday.
The mystery man could center the top line, playing between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, adding size, scoring punch and – probably just as important – defensive ability to a team that’s been searching for all of the above down the middle ever since GM Brian Burke arrived in town.
In a perfect world, that’s the player the Leafs would have.
In this one, however, it’ll be 21-year-old prospect Joe Colborne making his NHL debut on Saturday, skating alongside Kessel and Lupul in the final game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens.
Acquired from the Boston Bruins in February as part of the Tomas Kaberle trade, Colborne remains as raw as they come, a tall, rangy former first-round pick who has struggled through much of his first pro season.
He’s not yet an answer to Toronto’s issues at the position, but the organization wants a closer look at just what he could be.
“I want to put him in a position where he can succeed,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of playing Colborne with two of his top guns. “And utilize his strengths.
“Potentially, he could be a No. 1 centre someday. Still has lots to work on. Get bigger and stronger. But he’s a big body, he’s pretty good on faceoffs, he skates very well. So I’ll play him with some people who can help him out.”
Colborne’s arrival for Game 82 on the schedule involves bumping Tyler Bozak off of Kessel’s line, a prime spot that he’s held for much of the year despite struggling to produce offensively.
Interestingly enough, Colborne and Bozak are both former University of Denver teammates, where they briefly played together two years ago.
The biggest difference between the pair – other than the fact Colborne is 6-foot-5 and Bozak is 6-foot-1 – is their age, with Colborne four years younger and with plenty of time to still develop his game.
The jump to pro hockey hasn’t been all that easy for either player so far, although Colborne has shown signs of turning things around.
While he spent some time in the doghouse with the Bruins’ minor-league affiliate, Colborne has had a prominent role with the Toronto Marlies, putting up eight goals and 15 points in 19 games.
He credits Marlies coach Dallas Eakins with helping him improve in the American Hockey League, as other members of the Leafs like Keith Aulie, Darryl Boyce, Tim Brent and Nazem Kadri have done this season.
“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” Colborne said. “I almost feel like it’s been a tale of two seasons. Now it’s a completely different experience. I’ve loved it.”
The differences, meanwhile, speak volumes as to where the Leafs are at.
Whereas Colborne was one of several talented prospects in the Bruins’ system and eventually deemed expendable when the Leafs dangled Kaberle near the deadline, he is potentially a very key part of what Burke is seeking at centre ice.
Because of that, he’s received every opportunity with the Marlies, as Eakins attempts to develop the youngster into more than the sum of his current parts.
“The biggest thing is the confidence he instills in you,” Colborne said. “Right from Day 1, he called me in and said, ‘Look, we know you’re going to make mistakes, we want you to because we know you’re going to be out there making plays, too.’
“When I’ve made a mistake and come off, in past instances, on other teams, I would have been sat or put on the fourth line. But he’s thrown me right back out the next shift … It’s unbelievable what it’s done for my confidence. I think that’s why I’ve had the success that I’ve had.”
What that means for the future is hard to say. But playing against the Habs on Saturday to close the year is a reward for the progress Colborne’s made so far, a similar one-game audition to the ones Brent and Kadri received last season.