Joe Colborne didn’t make his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames, but he may as well have. His 16 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs – where he was traded in exchange for the services of one Tomas Kaberle – were unremarkable, resulting in one goal, six points, and an average of 12:34 in ice time. It got to the point he had to be traded again, if only so the Leafs could continue to dress two goons in the lineup every night (a practice the Flames also followed in Colborne’s first season with them, and not a good look for either team).
Colborne has two problems, though. First: he found his way onto his third NHL organization before he started regularly playing, never really getting a chance with the Leafs or Boston Bruins, who drafted him in the middle of the first round. He didn’t play regularly until his hometown team and former general manager picked him up.
Second: he ended up being ninth in Flames scoring in his rookie season – although the next four guys had higher point per game averages than he did – which is respectable enough, except for the fact that his most common linemates that year were Sean Monahan (fellow rookie, fifth in scoring) and Mike Cammalleri (third).
Cammalleri’s gone now, replaced by the inferior Mason Raymond, and Colborne doesn’t really get to play with Monahan anymore. So what’s his role on the team now?
Not a top six forward
This season, Colborne is averaging 15:22 a game: sixth on the team in average forward ice time (fifth once you take out the dearly departed Curtis Glencross). He’s received top six minutes most of this month, including leading the Flames in ice time for two games (they did not win either, losing to Ottawa and St. Louis). In just two of the 12 games the Flames have played so far this March has Colborne played minutes reflecting that of a third liner. And he has one goal to show for all of it.
With offence spread evenly across the board this season – 10 players have at least 10 goals each, with another three or four within striking range before the season finishes – Colborne’s overall seven goals and 25 points aren’t too bad. They put him at 11th on team scoring, seventh out of all forwards.
For someone to be getting so many minutes a game, though, you’d expect he’d be shooting the puck a reasonable amount. Yeah, yeah, the Flames are efficient shooters this season and whatnot; except we’re talking about someone receiving top six minutes who is 15th on the team in shots on net, 11th out of all forwards.
Brandon Bollig has more shots on net than Joe Colborne. Bollig averages 8:34 of ice time. There is little disputing that Bollig’s role is a fourth liner, and yet in just three more games played, he has 11 more shots on net.
Colborne, one of the team’s more frequently played forwards, doesn’t even have a shot on net a game. In his 56 games so far this season, he’s only managed 55 shots.
Mason Raymond has played seven fewer games than Colborne, has 50 more shots. Mikael Backlund has played 12 fewer games, has 39 more shots. Markus Granlund has played 15 fewer games, has one fewer shot. Only Backlund averages more ice time than Colborne.
When you think “top six forward”, you’re probably thinking of a guy who’s going to help lead the team in points. Colborne’s been a pretty big assist-getter, but he isn’t doing a whole of driving to the net himself, or creating his own offence. That’s all well and good, but if you’re in the top six… you should be doing that. You should be getting shots on net. The top line is. When I looked at the causes of their high shooting percentages this season, I also noted they were getting more shots on net than ever before in any of their careers. Quantity is still important.
Not a positive possession player
So if you aren’t in the top six, the least you should be doing is providing some decent depth. He has the assist totals to back him up on that front, but that’s pretty much it. And the Flames are, generally, worse when he’s on the ice. Let’s compare him to Paul Byron, who has 18 points on the season, averages about a minute less in ice time, and is about the same age:
|Player||2014-15 CF% rel||2014-15 ZSO% rel|
Colborne’s CF% rel is eighth worst out of Flames regulars, while Byron’s is sixth best. That’s while Colborne receives the ninth best relative zone starts, and Byron, eighth worst. Simply put: Colborne is put in position to succeed and fails, while Byron is put in position to fail and succeeds.
Byron may not be scoring as much – insert breakaway joke here – but he hurts his team less when he’s on the ice, all while playing in more difficult circumstances. Byron is more valuable than Colborne in a defensive, bottom six role.
Where does he fit in?
Colborne seems, at best, suited for a third line role at the moment. He does have some assets to his game: the assists total, for one thing. For another, he’s had some success in the shootout, with five goals over 14 attempts for a 36% success rate as a Flame. He’s 6’5, which means something, I guess, though I have my doubts he’ll ever end up being a David Backes and the comparison from both him and Brian Burke earlier in the year is probably unfounded.
But the thing is, he’s getting pushed out. He used to be linemates with Monahan, and has been effectively usurped by Johnny Gaudreau. That’s only going to continue as more high end prospects make the team. Sam Bennett is going to be a top six player. Emile Poirier is probably going to be a top six player. Colborne probably won’t be able to keep up with them, scoring-wise.
And on the other side of the spectrum, you have guys like Byron and even a surprise rookie in Josh Jooris whose underlying numbers are much better than Colborne’s. They may not be counted on to be scorers like the top six, but they’re great depth players. (And for someone who played so much with Monahan in his rookie season, this season, Colborne and Byron have played with him about the same amount this year, and Byron’s been more effective.)
Colborne is stuck in between roles, and as more of the Flames’ prospects start to make the NHL team, there starts to be less and less of a place for him. He won’t be able to compete with the offence the top forwards are producing; he already isn’t. His underlying numbers aren’t great. And if you’re someone who puts value on things like hits and blocked shots; well, he doesn’t do to well in the blocked shots department, but he is second on the team in hits. With more than 100 fewer than Bouma. (Whose own corsi is slightly less than Colborne’s but in substantially harder circumstances, for the record.)
As the team works to develop into a contender, it’s harder and harder to see where, exactly, Colborne fits in.