Who will be the hub of the Leafs’ number one line?
While incumbent Tyler Bozak put together an 18-goal, 47-point campaign, Leafs GM Brian Burke is convinced Bozak is better suited to a lower spot in the lineup.
There are three internal candidates for the spot between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul: Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri of the Marles as well as newly-acquired James van Riemsdyk.
Height: Six-foot-five and a half.
Weight: 220 lbs.
Strengths: Exceptional reach. Very good vision. Emerging defensive understanding.
Needs development: Skating. Consistency.
Joe Colborne is having growing pains.
“I had a growth spurt last year,” said the Leafs 22-year-old. “It hurt my knees the way it did when I was younger. My dad told me he was still growing when he was my age.”
Colborne figures he grew about half an inch. The tape now says six-foot-five and a half.
Talk of growing pains fits Colborne perfectly. After an astonishing start with the Marlies in which he scored eight goals and carded 16 points in his first eight games, Colborne scored only eight times in the next 57 regular season games. He added two goals and eight points in 15 post-season games as the Marlies advanced to the Calder Cup finals.
The Leafs called him up and Colborne fared nicely with a goal and four assists in 10 games and his permanent spot on the team’s roster seemed assured.
But an old wrist injury incurred early in his AHL career devastated his season. He had used cortisone shots to play through the hurt but the re-injured wrist plagued him all season. Shooting the puck became extraordinarily painful.
“It would go in waves. Sometimes it would feel all right but it took just one little knock and I would be back to square one,” he said.
Colborne readily admits that every player works through injuries. He does not blame the wrist for his statistical freefall. He recognizes that developing the ability to cope with an injury is a major element in the evolution of an NHL player. What derailed his season wasn’t so much his injury but the way he dealt with it. That, Colborne said, is on him.
“I consider myself a confident guy but as time went on I felt more and more pressure to go out and produce. When the season started I was just having fun and going with it. I just kept gripping the stick harder and harder and as I did I became more and more unhappy.”
Colborne considered surgery but that would have meant a lengthy layoff and retarded his development in all the other elements of the game. He played on because he wanted to and because there was so much more to learn than how to score.
An innocent looking slash mangled a finger in the playoffs but the amazing start, gained with Joey Crabb on his wing, nonetheless heightened his profile. He underwent surgery on the wrist last month and will be ready for the Leafs training camp. As in past years he will import a skating coach to work with over the summer and will spend time working with Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill as well.
He believes his body is starting thicken. “I think I’m finally starting to grow out instead of just up.”
Colborne was chosen 16th overall in 2008, a spot below Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the Senators and a position above the Leafs gifted rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner.
If the October Joe Colborne is the real version, it’s not impossible to suggest he could develop into an internal solution for the Leafs hole on the number one unit.
“I know the Leafs are looking for a big centre but I just want to help out somewhere on the roster,” he said.
James van Riemsdyk
Hometown: Middletown, New Jersey.
Weight: 205 lbs.
Strengths: Exceptional wingspan. Very good skater. Will go to the net.
Needs development: Consistency. Faceoffs.
James van Riemsdyk is used to being reminded about the Stanley Cup drought.
After all, his old team the Philadelphia Flyers hasn’t won a Cup since 1975.
“I’m definitely used to hearing that,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a little more magnified here.”
The second candidate to centre Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul was drafted second overall by the Flyers in 2007. The Chicago Blackhawks grabbed Patrick Kane first overall.
Van Riemsdyk scored 47 goals and assisted on 52 more in 196 games with the Flyers. Extrapolate his production through his first three NHL seasons and you come out with a 20-goal, 21 assist campaign.
That’s not a bad starting point. When he acquired van Riemsdyk at the entry draft for Luke Schenn, Leafs GM Brian Burke said he saw his new acquisition as a left-winger.
But with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the wing, the Leafs greatest hole is in the middle.
No problem, van Riemsdyk said. He’d love to try the middle.
The New Jersey native played centre for two seasons at the University of New Hampshire and with the U.S. development program.
“In Philly we had an abundance of centres. Obviously this is a good opportunity for me and I’m anxious to try.”
True enough. The Flyers had Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere and, for van Riemsdyk’s first two seasons, Mike Richards in the middle.
The 23-year-old has begun his research. The team has provided him with video on how coach Randy Carlyle sees the position.
“It’s just getting that comfort level with the position. When you are used to something it becomes second nature. You’re not thinking, just playing. That’s when you are at your best. I just have to get some reps in.”
There is no guarantee, of course, that van Riemsdyk will get first crack at the position. He is coming off an injury ravaged season in which he was besotted by a concussion, a hip injury, a broken bone in his foot and a strained oblique muscle.
But van Riemsdyk is a good passer with a solid grounding in defensive hockey.
“You always take care of your own end before you start thinking about offence,” he said. “I don’t think it matters what system you are playing. You are always going to be responsible and take care of both ends of the ice.”
Van Riemsdyk moves well for a big man and he will go to the net, as evidenced by his seven goals in 11 games in the 2011 playoffs.
“As a player you want to be in those situations, those key moments on the ice,” he said. “You want to have the game on your stick and those are the kinds of moments I love as a player. If I get that kind of opportunity I think that would be great.”
Hometown: London, Ontario
Weight: 185 pounds
Strengths: Exceptional hands, vision, playmaking ability
Needs development: Defensive play.
If you pro-rate the numbers Nazem Kadri accrued over his 92 AHL games, you come up with 31 goals and 72 points for an 82-game campaign.
Hard to argue, based on that, the 22-year-old isn’t ready to step into the NHL next season.
It has taken awhile. Four of the players chosen ahead of Kadri in 2009, John Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene and Evander Kane have each played more than 200 NHL games. Kadri’s total is at 51.
Then again, Kadri’s 19 points is a better total than Brayden Schenn’s 20 in 63 and no one doubts Schenn’s readiness for the NHL. Schenn is grittier but Kadri has comparable if not better skills and Kadri can be irritating as hell.
Every morning, Kadri gets us and heads to Gary Roberts gym north of Toronto. There he works out, sometimes until he vomits, picks up the meals prepared specially for him and heads out on his day.
“Gary contacted me in March or April and asked me if I wanted undertake the program,” Kadri said. “For me, this was the next step. I like to think I’m a pretty smart hockey player. I want to have every tool that is out there to succeed.”
Kadri had to wait to rehab a shoulder he injured in the Marlies post season. He scored three goals and added seven assists, good for 10 points in 11 games.
“Everything is set up to the last detail. Every day I go to the gym, go to the fridge, get my meals and chow down.”
“Once you get over the first few days you feel great and that’s the feeling that keeps you going. In the first few weeks I would excuse myself, go yak, and then get back to working out. After you pull the trigger you feel great.”
Kadri can play all three forward positions and his defensive awareness was polished up nicely in the Dallas Eakins finishing school.
“At the end of the day, I look to myself and my ability,”he said. “I’ve done everything that has been asked of me and I feel ready to take that next step.”