The Joe Colborne Conundrum

Let’s start this by establishing boundaries. Just what kind of player did the Leafs acquire in Joe Colborne?

At the  2:15-2:55 point of the press conference announcing the trade that sent Tomas Kaberle to Boston for Colborne and a first round pick, Brian Burke makes this statement about newly acquired Joe Colborne.

“Meets our criteria of assets that are close, not guys that’ll take three years to get there.”

That press conference took place in February 2011. The wrist injury affected his progress and timelines need to be adjusted. – even with the lockout. Recovery time would spill into the 2012-13 season, so there’s a distinct possibility that Colborne is playing through an injury, either the wrist, or something else.

Playing through an injury is unsubstantiated until definitive proof emerges, however. The following is therefore assuming that he is healthy, if not 100%. (Check out Cam’s post yesterday about his scoring struggles since his injury last season)

At the 4:00 minute mark, Burke describes his newly acquired asset.

“… he’s not ready but he’s close and should play in the top six. Not a bottom six guy despite the size. He’s a big enough guy, that’s the guy like a David Steckel type player that probably could adapt to a lower six role if he doesn’t get as far as we think he’s going to get. That’s not something we’re contemplating at this point.”

There’s been very little to indicate Colborne was expected to be a first line center. The range Burke alluded to, the ‘top-6’ is likely close to a second line center, if they weren’t going to convert him into a winger. Besides, naming him in the same sentence with David Steckel should automatically disqualify his upside as a first line player.

Burke turned around and signed Grabovski to a long term deal solidifying that second line center spot. Either Colborne would have to fight Grabovski for that spot, or he would have to play the wing, at some point in the near future.

Shortly after his acquisition, in his Toronto Marlies debut, I wrote out this scouting report which is just an excerpt here

“Big, rangy pivot, fairly swift and quick .. first two-step quickness leads into wide horseshoe stride, only a few required to hit top speed .. stride gets slushy when hurried .. net presence, if not directly in front – especially on PP today – he’s hovering in dirty areas .. entered dangerous slot area to pick up rebound and snap first as a Marlie .. seemed to handle the puck very little, passing it off and trying to get to the net – also part unfamiliarity being his first game .. gravitated toward where the puck was defensively leading to openings where a center would cover, like down low by the top of the crease”

That initial live view showed a willingness to get the net, scoring his first goal as a Marlie as a result. He was especially adept at setting up various give-and-go plays bee-lining to the front.

He had shown a penchant for getting shots up high in short distances in his repertoire a skill complimentary to one who makes use of space in front of the net.

I was able to catch his NHL debut live as well, and wrote this:

“ … seemed to overhandle the puck early and skated himself into corners only to double back into his lane instead of driving into the middle or making a play towards the goal .. had to just get to the net with the same passion and commitment that he did with the Marlies, and did at times …. holds his stick at his waist, and stick prep has to be better, especially with the speed of the NHL game being even quicker than in the AHL .. must also overcome skating himself into a corner and limiting options.”

Skating himself into dead ends is an indication of a perimeter game, staying on the outside and avoiding the dangerous middle ice, a characteristic that would emerge after his injury. He’s done some of that as well this season, skating it into a corner and relying on distribution skills to salvage a scoring chance situation.

His scouting report as it appears on Maple Leafs Hot Stove from the Lindy’s Maple Leafs Annual captured that first month scoring frenzy.

“ … displayed a passion for driving the net, forcing his way through defenders and abandoning a give-and-go game to incorporate more individuality. Wrist issues complicated accepting passes and his willingness to push towards the net dissipated as he faded into the perimeter …. Improvements in speed and overall strength have improved his boldness.”

When Colborne was scoring, he was fearless, individualistic driving into scoring areas and relied less on the give and go plays and teammates. As a bonus, he had a red hot Joey Crabb flanking him before the latter was called up to the Leafs.

While he has a wide range of stickhandling ability, I’m not convinced he has a blistering shot, or a sniper’s ability. To have success, he needs to get to those dirty areas, and often. It’s more about positioning and net presence. When he didn’t have the puck he would go to the net.

When he reverted to the perimeter game, he would stand just off to the side, or maintain some distance off the boards, relying on playmaking skills.

This goal is a good example of just standing next to the net. The play starts with him on the hash marks and when the cycle begins, and Kadri walks out to where Joe was, Colborne skates right to the side of the net.

While that’s still somewhat of a net presence, it’s less effective and forces a teammate to thread an improbable pass through traffic, or causes a turnover.

Colborne has to get in front, create havoc with his rangy frame and force goalies to look around him. If he has to become Dave Andreychuk reincarnate, scoring garbage goal after garbage goal, so be it.

Getting to the goal and stopping is a key element, one that is missing this season. Even with various amounts of examples scoring from in close. If you’re into counting chances, count the amount of times Colborne goes to the net and stops, or how many times he skates through the area depicted as the home run plate of scoring chances.

Steve Burtch made the point in a twitter conversation that playing through an injury like a wrist may make a player more tentative to get into those high traffic areas. The difficulty taking shots, accepting passes and dealing with myriad vibrations by holding the stick with slashes across the shaft, with a bad wrist, spawns the seed to avoid high density areas.

Prior to the wrist injury becoming public news – and after Burke signed Grabovski – I thought that the Leafs may have been grooming him to be a winger, as he would start at center, and seemingly take on winger’s duties in all three zones.


No points for style

His first NHL goal, sloppiness and lucky bounce aside, watch what he does, where he goes. He doesn’t drift to the side of the net, he goes directly in front, and is rewarded.

Even a preseason goal, again luck aside, the location is what matters, getting to the net, into the dirty area.

He’s much better driving through the defense when he makes concerted efforts to get to the goal. This next play is indicative of the type of engagement and drive while he was scoring early last season.

What’s that? Yes that was a slick move. Want to see it again?

A bad frame, but you see the streak to the net, getting the puck and scoring from in close. 

This inside drive, the willingness to consistently get in front and into scoring areas is missing from his game thus far this season. He’s operating in the shadows with the occasional drift into scoring areas, in the equivalent of the offensive zone suburbs.

Sometimes, he might as well be in Scarborough.

Then there’s this interview from last week:


Take note of two themes, one is that of being more available in scoring areas, and how relying on an ‘ugly’ goal is likely to be the spark to ignite his scoring. He mentioned the frustration and spoke about catching the breaks that would turn misses into success.

The second is the sentiment of being a good forechecking forward. He spoke of it as being part of the strategy on the road to take out the crowd. This seems more like a team strategy, but it also sounds like the type of game that keeps the puck in motion along the boards, and on the outside.

It may be a team initiative, but that’s not conducive to getting back to finding that drive to the net, with and without the puck. Supporting the cycle will create ugly goals. Maybe even one of those goals that goes in off his pants.

Scorer or playmaker?

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with working the perimeter if the player is developing into a playmaker and there’s been plenty of examples where Colborne shows off both his vision and underrated passing ability, finding seams and open men in scoring areas.

I’ve noted examples ranging from seeing-eye passes to effective and creative short passes. There’s been other times where he’s made a pass to where a player should have been  but for some reason wasn’t, effectively breaking up the play, but fault was on the player that overplayed the position, not Colborne’s passing. Then there’s just the play where he would set up a teammate who just couldn’t finish.

If Colborne can keep developing a strong distribution game, drifting into the perimeter may have a slight benefit of greater visibility. However, the benefit of developing playmaking skills may be taking away from the ability to score, and keeping him from getting to scoring areas consistently.

Now Joe Colborne has to make the decision. Which player shows up to meet the Leafs criteria of being close and not three years away – assuming he is not injured?

Is it Joe Colborne the skilled player Burke and co envisioned?

Or is it David Steckel adapting to a bottom six role.

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