TORONTO– As the rumours continue to churn that C Brad Richards is on Leafs GM Brian Burke’s radar, even if signed by Toronto, the centre position for the blue and white will continue to have questions needing answers that even Richards himself doesn’t possess.
With or without the 31-year-old Stanley Cup champion in next season’s line-up, C Mikhail Grabovski is more than certain to be a number two man following up last year’s performance when he broke out with a career high 29 goals and 58 points.
C Tim Brent and C Darryl Boyce are currently scheduled to become Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) and the expectation of them resigning is still unknown. At the beginning of the 2010/11 season neither of these men were expected to be on the Leafs roster however hard work and the ability to fill specific roles earned them the chance to stick around the NHL for their first full season.
C Nazem Kadri started last season with the Marlies, got the call-up in November (Along with D Keith Aulie), was demoted back to the Marlies, and then finally recalled to finish the year with the Leafs. He showed flashes of skill, especially his stick handling abilities, but also took criticism for his inability to play a two-way game. He was trained by Leafs staff to add strength, but then was questioned about losing speed due to an increase in weight.
Thought to be a top-line guy, Kadri spent much of his playing time centering the third line. It took him 19 games to score his first goal, which in part can be blamed on the lack of opportunity truly given with the big club. Playing for the Marlies, he had 17 goals and 41 points in 44 games. Another option tried with Kadri last year with both the Leafs and the Marlies was playing left wing, which could mean him taking a different role altogether next year.
Then there is C Tyler Bozak. The Saskatchewan native’s promising rookie campaign of 27 points in 37 games in 2009/10 instilled enough confidence for head coach Ron Wilson to start last season with Bozak centering the first line. Unless you prefer to think that he earned the top line by default for lack of skill amongst the Leafs roster because that too is a fair statement.
Regardless of opinion, the 25-year-old struggled out the gate, falling sometimes to a bottom six role exchanging playing time with Kadri on the third line. Bozak is currently a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) and although he experienced the “sophomore slump,” the consensus believes he will be resigned if the price is right.
And finally, there is C Joe Colborne.
In his second full season out of collegiate hockey, the 21-year-old native of Calgary, Alberta came to the Leafs organization and put up 16 points in 20 games with the Marlies. Then, on the final night of the NHL regular season, he was rewarded a spot on the Leafs squad, playing over 14 minutes against the Montreal Canadiens. He scored his first professional point, assisting on a Phil Kessel goal in what was a dream come true.
“It was the time of my life for sure. I took every second of it in. To play with guys like Lupul and Kessel is the chance in a lifetime,” smiled Colborne when asked about his debut in the NHL.
One of many Canadians who have recently taken the college route to the pros, Colborne explained his reasoning as to why he chose a Pioneers jersey rather than the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
“To put it lightly I was a string bean at 17 18. I was a really late bloomer. I had a big growth spurt when I was 16 and I grew six or seven inches so I think I was six-foot-three, 170 pounds, so I figured the best way for me to play pro hockey was to go play less games and work out all week long and that’s what I did for two years. I thank the University of Denver for getting me to this level,” stated Colborne when he returned to the Marlies line up to finish up their regular season one day later.
Now standing 6’5” and 213lbs, Colborne is spending his summer back in Calgary training for the upcoming season and has an opportunity to crack the Leafs roster full time for 2011/12.
“Guys I relate to with my size are Eric Staal, Jordan Stall, Joe Thornton, (and) Ryan Getzlaf. Those guys are guys I look at and try to emulate because obviously they’re some of the best players in the world,” said Colborne when asked about his skill set. He then went on to add, “I like to control the puck, bring a good fore-check, cause turnovers using my reach, control the puck down low and through the neutral zone to make plays for my wingers. I’ve been working on my shot the last couple years too so I’m hoping to add that to my repertoire too.”
It’s also great when a player wants to be where he is and there is no doubt when Colborne was brought over in February in the Tomas Kaberle deal, that he was pumped.
“(It’s) unbelievable the amount of excitement that’s here in Toronto about the Leafs. It’s crazy. I’m happy to be part of it and I’m pretty lucky to be putting these jerseys on and hopefully I’ll be wearing them a long time,” he said when he first arrived from Boston’s affiliate, the Providence Bruins. “The coaching the staff has made me feel so part of the family, everyone has welcomed me with open arms.”
If all he says is correct, then the combination of his size, the talent of whom he compares himself to, the skill set he possesses on the ice all and his excitement for Toronto all relates back to what Burke needs up front.
Unfortunately what is lacking is the experience. But just like any quality player, experience comes with time and his time could be now. Just don’t tell Bozak that Colborne may be ready.
“He (Bozak) was the first guy. He said pack your bags before I knew anything, he had the inside scoop,” said Colborne when asked about how he found out about his trade to Toronto. “He’s just another guy whose welcomed me to Toronto and made me feel right at home. We were line mates for most the year I played with him at Denver.”
What seems to be a good friendship may turn into a good rivalry as both clash for a position centering one of the current three open lines. And just to be certain that his goals are clear, Colborne added,
“The Stanley cup is the end goal for everyone. I’m looking forward to next year.”