The Toronto Maple Leafs made the decision to cut ties with centre Joe Colborne last night, sending him to the Calgary Flames for a fourth round draft pick in the 2014 entry draft. I’m sure you’ve all heard that by now; we had a post about it right after it happened courtesy of Justin Fisher. I wasn’t home to give a significant opinion about it, which may have been for the best, really; my initial response could be politely summarized as "are you kidding me?".
Fast forward to today, and my conclusion it was an unfortnately sensible move that was forced by mistakes, that will benefit Colborne most of all.
Better Than Advertised
Immediately after the trade happened, everybody suddenly became an expert on Colborne’s ability. Even more suddenly, that defnintion of ability had grossly changed.
We (myself included) ranked him as Toronto’s 2nd best prospect. PPP had him at 6th in their Top 25 under 25. Hockey’s Future had him as their 3rd best. I could keep going, but those who paid at least some attention to the Leafs organization outside of the NHL felt that there was still something in store with him.
But, a trade brings out everybody’s opinion, and short term memory. So the bulk of thought came from this preseason. Which, to be honest, I thought he did pretty decent in, scoring 3 points in 6 games. Yes, two of those came last night, and he didn’t do anything that made him particularly "stand out", but he only played 57 minutes over those games, largely in a bottom six role.
Next, one will go to the stat sheets, and point out his lack of AHL production. After all, he averaged just 0.65 points per game over his 150 games with the Toronto Marlies, right? No. Stats are often criticized for not "telling the full story", and sometimes using that statement is invalid, but in this case, it’s the definition of sensible. This is a pretty basic timeline of Joe Colborne on the Marlies.
- Joined the team in 2010/11 after being acquired by the Leafs in the trade that sent Tomas Kaberle to Boston. Has an immediate impact, scoring a goal and a shootout goal in his first game with the blue and white. He finishes his first stint with the Marlies contributing a total of 16 points in 20 games.
- Storms out the gate in 2011/12, winning AHL Player of The Month in October, scoring 16 points in 9 games on a line with Joey Crabb and Jerry D’Amigo. He scores 3 points in 3 games to start November, suffering a lower body injury on November 8th against Grand Rapids.
- Returns to the lineup on December 9th, 2011, getting an assist in his first game back, before going pointless for a few games, leaving the ACC Boxing Day Game with 1G and 2A in 7 games. A this point, he has 22 points in 20 games, or 38 in 40 total with the Marlies.
- Colborne tears two ligaments in his left wrist. It’s found out later that there’s also a broken bone in the same wrist, but nobody knows if it was suffered at the same time or caused by playing through it. In any event, team doctors told that he couldn’t make the injury worse by continuing to play, but they advised against it and suggested he shut himself down. Colborne, not wanting to lose his spot on the team or be seen as "injury prone" after the prior month, plays the entire season, with the exception of skipping the AHL All Star Game.
- In this time, Colborne produces 17 points in 40 games, and 5 points in 10 games with the Maple Leafs after being called up. He plays through the playoffs (not counted in final totals) as well, scoring 8 points in 15 games.
- Procedures are done to restore his wrist in the off-season, but it didn’t take immediate effect. Colborne plays through anyway, assuming his wrist is at the best it will get. Combined with lower minutes due to lockout-talent being in front, Colborne gets just 10 points in his first 28 games of the season.
- Just like the year before, "just after Christmas" is big for him, but this time with good news. His wrist ‘pops’ during a practice, likely the breaking down of scar tissue. Colborne regains full mobility in his wrist, and from January 2nd on, scores 19 points in his next 18 games, and despite scoring as a whole falling on the team, closes the year with 32 points in 37 games post-recovery.
So where does this leave Colborne’s AHL production? H stands for Healthy, I stands for Injured:
To say that isn’t a significant gap is crazy. Colborne goes from a very well producing young forward at the AHL level to stone hands. Why? Because having literal stone hands is probably better for a skilled offensive forward who uses reach and finesse than having your dominant wrist torn and broken. Probably.
Of course, this injury was left relatively hush, not often touched on by the media, fans, or the team itself. Instead, he just appeared to "fall off", which is damaging to peer value, if not actual trade value as well.
Whether the injury stunted Colborne’s actual development remains to be seen. Dallas Eakins made a point to have him play more penalty kill and experiment with shutdown situations while hurt, so he could use the time to work on his defensive game. We don’t have the same access to statistics in the AHL as we do in the NHL, so it’s hard to say for sure, but his positional awareness seemed to improve and he was rarely a minus player in his offensive decline. In that sense, he built a better all around game while losing his offensive one – something that helped him when he joined the Leafs for the playoffs last year.
So my preliminary argument is this – Joe Colborne is probably better than you think he is. I’d go as far to say that if he shut himself down in December 2011 and came back when he was ready, he would have either made Tyler Bozak expendable, or David Bolland unnecesary to acquire. He’d probably come with a higher cap hit, or more length, but it would still be a lower dent than either of those two.
So, if the first issue I have with the Leafs in this situation is giving up on a good player, is there any more? Sure. There’s also the immediate process that leads to this trade happening. We’ve all heard "blah blah the Leafs have overspent all off-season" from myself and others all summer, so I’ll save you the preliminaries, but the point is that the team simply ran out of room and had to make a quick decision with the waivers deadline being this afternoon.
Do the Toronto Maple Leafs have this problem if they change their allotment of big dollars in the first week or two of the off-season? Probably not; there’s still a possibility that the final signings (Raymond, Kadri, Franson) get more out of the team, but not enough to make it equally severe. Do the Leafs need to cut Colborne from the bottom six if they don’t decide on having multiple enforcers in the lineup at once? Probably not.
Even if they do decide to "give up on him" anyway, do they get more value for him without the short notice and knowledge of semi-desperation? Not a heck of a lot more most likely, with the injury situation probably being not as well known, but they could probably squeeze out a slightly better return. Maybe the third round pick is a guaranteed one instead of an outlandish condition. It still doesn’t equal the value of what I think Colborne could do, bit it would be something at least.
Ultimately though, the Leafs have a vision in place, and by the skins of their teeth, found an arrangement to make it work. The arrangement just happens to involve the move that sends their lowest played roster player and one of their better propsects to Calgary.
This move, on the other hand, is probably the best thing to happen to Joe Colborne. Not that the Leafs were dazzling in their centre depth, but they feel like they have a cemented 1/2/3/4 for now. The Flames? They’re clearly in a rebuilding phase, and they won’t pretend that the likes of Matt Stajan and Jiri Hudler have secure jobs. A healthy Colborne could easily climb his way up their depth chart, especially if the Flames begin to sell off.
It’s not like he won’t have the off ice support around him either. You have to imagine that Hockey Operations President Brian Burke was a huge part of this deal, being the GM that acquired him in Toronto to begin with. Barring that, he has his family and friends, being a native of Calgary. The only thing he doesn’t have is teammate history; the closest probable player to him on the Flames roster is Dennis Wideman, who was in the organization at the same time as him, but hey didn’t so much as spend a training camp together.
Still though, the odds are in Colborne’s favour. His wrist is as healthy as it’s ever been. He’s bulked up, and he’s improved defensively. He’s gone from a team that didn’t see him in their plans and had to make a quick decision, to back in his hometown that needs a player in his position to step up. If he plays his cards right, he could be a heck of a good player for them sooner than later.
Thankfully for the Leafs, Calgary isn’t exactly a frequent opponent. Besides, if there’s no other reason to defend this deal, if they weren’t going to be able to find a proper use for him, why squander his potential? I won’t lie to you and tell you this is a good move. Because we will definitely look back at this one and say "well, he’s a lot better than a trade for a mid-draft pick". But given the circumstances, this is probably the best option for everybody.