Colborne adds beef to try and become a Leaf

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

Toronto Marlies centre Joe Colborne (Toronto Marlies)

Asked his weight, he says anywhere between 208 and 218 pounds, depending on the day.

Asked his height, he says it’s gone up another half inch, even though he turned 22 four months ago and was already 6-foot-5.

This is life as Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Joe Colborne, who with the help of team trainers and nutritionists has been trying to thwart Mother Nature’s attempts to keep him a lean beanpole in the hopes he can make the NHL full time in the near future.

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It’s an ongoing battle.

“Trust me, they’re on me to keep getting bigger,” Colborne said on Wednesday, as the Toronto Marlies prepared for Game 3 of the Calder Cup finals. “It’s absurd right now. I probably eat about 4,000 or 5,000 calories. It just never ends. I’ll go out for food and everyone else is ready to leave and I’ve got to eat a whole new meal.

“That [metabolism] is a good thing I guess when I get older. I’ll be laughing at the other guys for being fat.”

While he’s obviously made progress on the weight gain front – adding 15 pounds since joining the Leafs organization – Colborne’s season has otherwise been all over the map.

After a dream start with 19 points in his first 11 games and the AHL player of the month award for October, he was called up to the Leafs for a 10-game stretch in which he netted five points and looked relatively comfortable in his first sustained NHL action.

From then on, however, Colborne struggled through injuries and inconsistency in the minors, posting no goals and only four points in his final 24 regular season games. By season’s end, he had just 16 goals and 39 points in 65 games, with much of that production coming in the season’s first 11 games.

His time in the playoffs hasn’t been overly productive either, as what’s believed to be a wrist injury is at least partially to blame for him only having two goals and five assists in 13 games.

“He just got off to an unbelievable start,” Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said. “And I always judge a player’s potential by their best game because that’s as good as you’ve seen them play.

“But to keep that pace up, that’s the problem... I think he kind of came back to reality in mid-season, to where we thought he would play, but when you get off to such a great start and then it’s not going for you, you start losing your confidence. [You think] ‘Hey why isn’t it working?’ He started going outside his game. Trying things we don’t want him to do.”

Part of the problem has also been expectations.

After all, Colborne has been saddled with some rather high ones in Toronto, beginning almost right from the day he was acquired in the Tomas Kaberle trade with Boston in February, 2011.

Because of his size and draft pedigree – the Bruins took him 16th overall in 2008, before Michael Del Zotto and Jordan Eberle – the raw youngster was touted by Leafs GM Brian Burke and others in the organization as a potential answer to a lack of depth up the middle.

Even outgoing executive Rick Dudley made a point to praise Colborne on the way out, telling colleague David Shoalts two weeks ago that “if his cardiovascular fitness is elite and he improves his quickness just a bit, he can become a top two centre in the NHL for sure.”

At the moment, however, being a solid top two centre in the AHL – nevermind making good on those NHL aspirations – has been enough of a challenge.

Not that that was entirely unexpected. For one, Colborne’s road as a teen through the Alberta Junior A league and two years of NCAA hockey is the classic path of a late bloomer, and with the Bruins affiliate in Providence, he spent a lot of time on the bench as a rookie.

When Colborne arrived in the trade, Eakins embraced his new project and loaded him up with ice time in his early days on the Marlies roster.

That has since fallen off as the coaching staff has been working with him on defensive play, something that has to improve in order for Colborne to potentially fill a checking line role at the next level.

And his coach made it clear he isn’t unhappy by a second pro campaign that has been so uneven.

“I’m not disheartened by Joe’s season,” Eakins said. “He’s played through an injury. We had to finally shut him down. I think he’s been much better over the last few games.

“The one thing he is is extremely motivated. It’s not a thing where I have to go to him and say you have to work harder on anything. It’s more of a detail thing.”

One of those details is his play in his own end. Several others listed by Eakins on Wednesday are hanging onto the puck longer, driving his legs to generate power and speed, having possession down low and beating teams wide using his size.

(Speaking of which, Colborne is likely to get plenty of sessions in with the Leafs new skating coach, Barb Underhill, in the off-season, as she’s worked wonders with other big bodies like the New York Rangers’ Brian Boyle.)

The final key is gaining even more weight, something that will require plenty of diligence in what will be a short summer given Colborne’s end goal is to enter training camp in the fall at 225 pounds.

“If I ate three meals in a day, I’d probably lose over five pounds,” he said of that push. “I get up immediately in the morning, and I’ll have one of these shakes. And then come to the rink, I have protein here at the rink. And then they have breakfast for us. Then we have lunch [after practice] and another shake. Then I go home for another meal at like three and I’ll usually go out for dinner after.”

As for the rest of his game and the necessary gains needed there, Colborne can feel it coming slowly, despite the lack of production, the injuries and all that eating.

His brief taste of life in the NHL, meanwhile, is still his biggest source of continued confidence, as those 10 games gave him an opportunity to show he belongs at the highest level.

The trick now is to get back there to stay.

“I felt much more powerful in my skating,” Colborne said of his season. “I think it was just overall kind of maturing into my body. I’m still growing. Everyone keeps saying I look a little bit bigger. It’s just a maturity thing, I think. And the coaches have been on me all year long about my D-zone and focusing on that. I’ve made big strides through that.

“To actually go up there [to the NHL] and get my 10 games this year and be able to produce some points, that was unbelievable for how I feel. I know I can go up against some of the top players in the world now. I got to play against a couple of my idols, guys I look up to, in Eric Staal and Vinny Lecavalier. It was a huge learning year for me. To be able to go on this playoff run is huge. And it certainly would be nicer to come out of it with a ring and with a Cup.

“So far it’s been a trying year at times, but it’s also been a huge learning experience for me.”