Monday, November 7, 2011

Joe Colborne and Jake Gardiner: Forcing Management's Hand

Things sure have started moving quickly for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After years out of the playoffs and a minor league system that needed an infusion of talent, the Leafs currently find themselves in an unusual position.

For starters, the team sits among the leaders in the Eastern conference standings.  A fast start from their star players and a soft schedule has seen the Buds fly out of the gate with a 9-4-1 record.

The rapid development hasn't been limited to the standings.  Last season, Brian Burke dealt a pair of veteran defensemen in Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin near the trade deadline.  The return for these players included a pair of prospects, Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne.

If asked, I don't believe the expectation from the organization would have been for them to be fulltime NHLers in the 2011-12 season and yet, 14 games into the Leafs' season, Gardiner has solidified his place on the team and Joe Colborne is leading the AHL in scoring with 19 points in 12 games.

The two year contract given to Tim Connolly is a pretty good indication that the team didn't think Colborne would be this good, this fast.

Jake Gardiner has been solid during his time in the NHL.  His 5 assists so far this season place him 3rd in scoring among the team's defensemen, behind only Liles and Phaneuf.  He came to the team with a reputation for being a solid skater and his calm with the puck is reminiscent of what we saw for so many years from Kaberle.

There are still some defensive weaknesses with Gardiner, to be sure, but he has certainly done enough to show that he's ready to start learning the game at the NHL level.

Joe Colborne has been nothing short of spectacular with the Marlies so far.  With 10 goals and 9 assists in 12 games, Colborne has taken the next step in his development.  Always touted as a highly skilled prospect, the knock on Colborne was that he needed to better use his size to his advantage.  Now, Colborne can regularly be seen driving the net hard, shielding the puck and using his enormous reach to make high-skill moves at top speed.

The longer this run continues, and the more time Connolly spends nursing his seemingly ubiquitous 'upper body' injuries, the harder it's going to be to keep Colborne out of the NHL.  At 6'5", Colborne would bring an element of size that has been noticeably absent among Leaf forwards since a certain #13 took his talents to the West Coast.

With these two youngsters vaulting themselves up  the developmental curve, management is going to need to start making some challenging personnel decisions.  Cody Franson has already expressed his displeasure with his current role and while you don't like that he voiced it publicly, it's tough not to feel for the kid.  He's got a lot of talent and is awfully young to be relegated to the role of seventh defenseman. 

Rumours have been at a fevered pitch around the Toronto Maple Leafs and it's no surprise as to why.  Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne are forcing the braintrust to revise their plans on the fly and Brian Burke wouldn't have it any other way.

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