Colborne doesn't want to be trade bait
Joe Colborne and New Jersey Devils Zach Parise during 1st period NHL hockey action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Dec. 6, 2011. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)
A year ago, Joe Colborne was the prospect involved in a trade by the Maple Leafs, coming to Toronto in a deal that sent defenceman Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins.
For Colborne, a 6-foot-5, 213-pound centre with the Toronto Marlies, once was fine, thanks.
If Leafs general manager Brian Burke makes a swap before the deadline, and many across the National Hockey League think he will, there's an excellent chance he will have to part with a talented young player.
A call from Burke telling him to pack up is one Colborne does not want to get.
"I want to be the one the Leafs look (upon) to be their No. 1 go-to guy," Colborne said. "It's something I'm striving for. When I wake up every day and come to the rink, that's the goal I have."
Colborne could develop into that player. But he is not yet ready to make a large impact, and Burke wants help at centre before the Leafs make their final run to a potential playoff spot.
Prior to the Marlies' home game against Adirondack on Tuesday night, Colborne had 33 points (15 goals and 18 assists) in 39 games for the Leafs' AHL affiliate. He recorded four points in nine games with the Leafs during a stint in late November and early December, and since he was returned to the Marlies, has worked at buckling down defensively.
He doesn't have much choice, as he won't make it with the Leafs unless they can trust him when the puck is not on his stick. Not everyone uses plus-minus as the end all and be all, but it's worth noting that Colborne was tied for the Marlies' lead at plus-10 heading into Tuesday's game.
"I've been playing the best defensive hockey of my life," Colborne, 22, said. "It never really was a huge focus for me, but I really have started to (concentrate) on it.
"There are a few times when I might have had a breakaway, but I'm staying back to make sure I'm on the defensive side of my guy. The best example, and (Marlies coach) Dallas (Eakins) used it when he was talking to me about it a few weeks ago, is Pavel Datsyuk (of the Detroit Red Wings). He has never led the NHL in scoring, but if you ask 10 NHLers, nine of them would say he is in the top two or three in the league. It's because he is impossible to play against and he cares so much about the defensive zone."
And as for the trade talk, Colborne said it's not keeping him up at night.
"It's old hat for me," the Calgary native said. "I know Nazem (Kadri) has been in a bunch of (rumours) and we joke about it. People make it seem like we are so worried about it, but it's really a relaxed atmosphere. I love being in Toronto and that's where my focus is."
Marlies rookie defenceman Jesse Blacker remains a work in progress, but the Toronto native's play has been on an upswing.
"I think of three years ago when I saw him at the rookie tournament," said Marlies assistant coach Gord Dineen, who handles the team's blueliners. "He has come a long way. He always had the skating ability, you could see that early on. Now, he is utilizing that and his puck-moving ability to his benefit at the pro level. His reads, knowing when to go with the puck and when to move it, that has been the biggest improvement I have seen."
With all young defencemen, there will be hiccups. Blacker experienced as much last Friday, when he scored his first AHL goal in a game against San Antonio. But he was in the penalty box serving a boarding minor in overtime when San Antonio scored.
Blacker helped the Owen Sound Attack win the Ontario Hockey League championship last May and ate up a lot of minutes in the Attack's playoff run. While that experience was something he could not buy, the AHL has represented a few steps up for him.
"The consistency," Blacker, the 58th overall pick by the Leafs in 2009, said. "If you make a mistake, you usually cost your team. At the junior level, you could recover. Here, it's a lot harder. Speed and size of the players is the big difference."
Importantly, Blacker is not a kid who thinks he has the hockey world by the tail.
"He keeps coming to us and asking for more, whether it's video or other input," Dineen said. "He's not getting comfortable. If his desire and commitment stay the way they are right now, I have full confidence that he can make that jump (to the NHL)."