Last year at the trade deadline the Leafs dealt Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Joe Colborne, and 1st and 2nd round draft picks (that we traded to get Tyler Biggs and John-Michael Liles respectively). Theoretically if Biggs pans out, and the Leafs at some point either re-sign or move Liles, that deal could equate to Tomas Kaberle as a rental in exchange for two key forward pieces in Colborne and Biggs, plus an offensive defender of comparable caliber OR further prospects.
Not quite a steal as the Bruins and Kaberle won a Stanley Cup, but still a pretty solid return for a rental to put them over the hump. So far Biggs is toiling away in relative anonymity at the University of Miami (Ohio) with the Redhawks, a top notch NCAA Div I program, most noteworthy to Leaf fans in recent seasons as the school where Brian Burke's son Brendan was working as team manager at the time of his death. Liles has put up 6 points in his first 8 Leaf games and looks to be an offensively productive player, even if his defense leaves a bit to be desired.
The key piece to this puzzle remains the lanky centre prospect the Leafs obtained from Boston in the initial transaction though, Joe Colborne. Selected 16th overall in the 2008 entry draft, 11 picks after Luke Schenn, and immediately before Leafs rookie Jake Gardiner (also obtained in a trade last season from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Francois Beauchemin), Colborne is still very early in his career at 21 years of age.
Colborne is 8 months older than Nazem Kadri, and spent two years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Camrose Kodiaks alongside fellow Leaf prospect and 7th round draft pick Andrew MacWilliam (who currently plies his trade for the University of North Dakota - where he played with Leaf rookie forward Matt Frattin for the two seasons prior to this one).
After two years in the AJHL, and going in the first round of the draft, Colborne moved on to the University of Denver in the WCHA for the 2008-09 season, where he stepped onto the ice as the team's 3rd line Centre behind veterans Tyler Bozak (who is also now a Leaf) and Anthony Maiani, and in competition with former Leaf prospect Tyler Ruegsegger. Bozak eventually went down with a knee injury after 19 games and Colborne filled the breach admirably, picking up 10 goals and 31 points in 40 games as an 18 year old rookie in the NCAA.
If anyone is noticing a trend here amongst all these Leaf connections, try not to read too much into it - though I would say they obviously do exist. It obviously helped the team to be able to pick the brains of players that had played with Colborne, trained with him, and scouts that had watched him play numerous times. Management wasn't just asking for a player they had watched, they were asking for a player they had inside information on, and insight into the mentality of.
Following up the 2008-09 season, Colborne had high expectations in 2009-10, and as expected with more ice time his production increased, though perhaps he didn't perform up to Boston's expectations, producing 19 goals and 41 points in 39 games as a 19 year old. He signed a pro-contract at the end of the year and suited up for 6 games with the Providence Bruins to close out the year. He only obtained 2 assists with the baby Bruins, and ended up -9 in those 6 games, so Boston might have had concerns from the get go.
In his first full AHL season, Colborne was listed as 4th on Providence's depth chart in the middle. This may seem a tad unfair, but as an organization Boston is extremely deep at Centre Ice. Savard (pre-retirement), Krejci, Bergeron, Seguin, Horton, Kelly, Arniel, Hamill, and Sauve all seemed to be ahead of Colborne on the depth chart. In the AHL this amounted to Colborne producing less than Arniel and Sauve who were drafted in the 4th and 2nd round of the 2008 draft (behind Colborne) respectively, and the 2007 1st rounder (8th overall pick) Hamill. With Seguin skyrocketing past all 4 onto the NHL roster as a 2nd overall draft pick, Colborne quickly became expendable to the team's future plans.
His 26 points and -16 rating in 55 games obviously did not endear him to the Providence coaching staff, and no interest was likely to come from above given that type of production. His size was an asset he didn't appear to make enough use of, he didn't demonstrate enough of the poise and puck skill that earned him his 1st round status, and he seemed to fall out of favour. The Leafs organization may have had a bit of an idea that Colborne was an asset going to waste in Boston's system, and perhaps identified him as a target early on.
Following the trade to Toronto, Dallas Eakins went to work on Colborne's defensive miscues and encouraged the youngster to make more of an effort to park himself in front of the net. With his distribution skills, his good hands, and his size, he would prove an asset very early on to the Marlies power play. In his first two games, he produced three goals. He would go on to produce 6 goals and 10 points in his first 11 games in a Marlies uniform. Despite some concussion issues, he would end the year on a good note with 2 goals and 6 points in his final 7 games of the season. He would end up with 8 goals and 16 points in 20 games with the Marlies, and he reversed the trend that saw him record a -16 rating in Providence, and instead posted a +2 rating in Toronto.
Picking up where he left off and then some, Colborne has entered this season as a young man possessed. He currently leads the entire AHL in scoring tied with his line mate Joey Crabb at 15 points through 7 games. He has also improved his defensive game to the point where he is rated as a +9 player on the season. He has taken no penalties so far this year, and is leading the team in virtually every facet offensively.
Why is this a big deal you might be asking? It's a big deal because Colborne has now registered 31 points in only 27 games as a Marlie, with that production jumping from 0.8 ppg in 20 games last year, to 2.14 ppg in only 7 games this year. He's also only 21 years old, which makes this quite fortuitous from a development perspective. It would seem that Colborne has finally figured out what to do with his frame.
Here is a list of players under the age of 24, to play 20 games or more in an AHL season at over 1.00 ppg from recent years. For most of these players this was their "breakout" season. Note the number of top end players and prospects on the list and their ages:
So in comparison to this list, Colborne's 31 points in 27 games puts him at 1.15 ppg at 21 years of age, and so far this year his numbers are trending significantly upwards. The majority of the players on that list are solid contributors offensively, though some are undersized or defensively weak which has led to them floating between the NHL and other leagues like the AHL, KHL, and SM-Liiga.
If Colborne develops into a player comparable to Penner, Krejci, Anisimov, Couture, Downie, or hell 3/4 of the players on that list, I think Leaf fans will be greatly pleased. A centre with skill, size, strength, and the ability to produce down low and in front of the net. We haven't had one of those in a while have we?
So now I leave it up to the rest of you to discuss the following:
1) How long do you think before Colborne should be playing for the Leafs full time?
2) If you need to move a C to make space, who do you ship out?
3) What is the long term potential for Colborne (i.e. who do you want him to be similar to)?