TORONTO - Joe Colborne believes he is at last ready to be a regular in the NHL.
"But it's one thing to feel it and it's another thing to go out and show it," said the now 23-year-old prospective Leafs centre. "And I realize that."
Colborne has had a few cups of coffee with the big club in Toronto over the course of two-plus seasons in the organization – 16 career regular season games – but has yet to stick the landing for good. Inked to a one-year, one-way contract this past summer, he is staring hard at perhaps his final shot with the Leafs. With opportunity there for the taking, he knows no better time than the present to pronounce himself ready.
"The only way you can do that is to come out and actually do it so that's what I'm happy to do, come out and prove to people that I'm an NHL player," Colborne said, acquired from Boston in the Tomas Kaberle trade of February 2011. "Doesn't mean anything if I think it, it has to be the coaching staff and the management."
With a first round pedigree (2008), Colborne has long had the raw potential to make an impact in the NHL, what with the lofty stature (listed at 6-foot-5) and offensive handiness to make any scout scribble furiously in a notebook. Thicker these days at 220 pounds and now boasting an improved arsenal which includes increased speed – following continued work with Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill – and an obvious infusion of confidence, it's clear that Colborne is in position to put it all together.
"He looks like he's grown into his body a little bit more," observed Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "He's a bigger man, thicker man. He seems more confident out there; he's handling the puck with more confidence. He's a young player trying to cut his teeth."
After tiptoeing into the Leafs lineup for Games 6 and 7 against the Bruins late last spring, Colborne returned home to Calgary this past summer where he could thankfully shoot pucks in the old barn with a clean bill of health. Memories of the previous summer still seem to sting. After he and the Marlies were thwarted by Norfolk in the Calder Cup Final in June, Colborne underwent wrist surgery that would force him to the sidelines for nearly all of the offseason.
"In a word, it was frustrating," he recalled of the summer of 2012. "I felt like I was just spinning my wheels the whole time just sitting there. I couldn't do a lot of things. I couldn't be out shooting pucks in the old barn that we have out back that I've done since I was little. I couldn't get on the ice until a week before camp [started].
"I rode the crap out of the bike and that was about all I could do."
Forced to near-dormancy for most of the warmer months, Colborne arrived at Marlies training camp that fall with a swagger set at low, the effects of the wrist injury still lingering following an offseason seemingly wasted.
"My one arm was so much skinnier than the other," he recalled.
In spite of the surgery, the wrist still gave him trouble. He had difficulty shooting the puck, the result a lost first half of one goal in 25 games.
Then one night a scary hit rocked Colborne, one that "actually scared me pretty bad". There was a "big pop" and from it the lengthy Boston draft pick believed he'd reinjured the wrist. He returned to the bench in anger, slamming his stick to mark the frustration. "I kind of freaked out," he remembered with a grin.
But after about a minute's worth of time the sting was gone and Colborne realized that he could move the once tender zone of his wrist better than he had since the injury first occurred. The results followed. Over the final 37 games, Colborne would tally 12 goals and 32 points before joining the Leafs towards the end of the year.
"It was a tough situation," he reflected of the two-faced 2013 season, "but definitely something you learn from and I made sure I made up for it this summer."
This fall represents perhaps the best chance for Colborne to finally realize his NHL potential with opportunity there for the taking in the bottom half of the Leafs forward ranks. Failure to land a spot might spell the end for him in Toronto. Colborne now requires waivers to return to the AHL and considering his age and talent package, it's likely he would be lost to another club if they tried to pass him through to the Marlies.
"I just want to go out and show that I can work well in both ends," Colborne said, stressing the importance of proving his worth in the defensive zone under Carlyle. "It's finding the right balance that the coaching staff wants me to have and pretty much playing whatever role they tell me to do and I'll go out there and do it to the best of my ability. Just show that I can play in a defensive role if they want me and in an offensive role [too]."
"Anytime you have that kind of intangibles as far as size and skill and speed the sky's the limit," Carlyle noted. "It'll be up to him to continue to show growth and take the next step and it'll be us to provide him with the strong environment that he can do that."
Now is the time for Joe Colborne and he knows it.
"This year, knowing that I put in the work this summer I know I can come and I can handle the bag skates and I can handle all those other things," he said. "It's just now about going out there and making sure I go play the way I know I can."