Trading for Joe Colborne was, without question, a good move. Any time you can pick up a young, likely NHLer for nothing more than a fourth round pick is a move you make.
Don’t mind the Flames’ apparent success in the fourth round as of late with T.J. Brodie, Johnny Gaudreau, and possibly Brett Kulak: they are the exceptions, not the norms. Most fourth round picks will never see the NHL. So to get a surefire NHL player for a mid-level pick? It’s a win, each and every time.
What happens after you acquire said NHLer is a different matter. Not all hockey players are created equal, including at the highest level. Some are elite, while some simply don’t belong there. Most fall in between.
Colborne is trending more towards that latter category, though. And now, after half a season’s worth of chances some could only ever dream of, he look to finally be a healthy scratch. It remains to be seen if this is a simple wake up call and he’ll be back in the lineup next game, or if it’s a move that will stick, but one thing is for sure: it’s been a long time coming.
Career to date
Prior to becoming a Flame, Colborne had played 16 games for the Leafs, scoring a goal and five assists along the way: nothing impressive, but this was a young player who had strong showings in the AHL when he wasn’t injured.
And to be sure, his first season as a Flame – and then still defined as a rookie – was a good one. He played 80 games, scoring 10 goals, which was okay; he had 28 points total, which put him ninth in team scoring. His most common linemate was fellow rookie Sean Monahan, who had roughly .45 points per game to Colborne’s .35 – again, not bad, and a sign of potential to come.
Except the Flames were really, really bad that season, resulting in their highest-ever draft pick: a fourth overall pick, thanks to a final-four finish. But this was a team that needed to give young players an opportunity, and Colborne, with his size and potential, was a good candidate.
He showed moderate improvement in his sophomore year, again scoring 28 points (10th in team scoring), but this time over 64 games: a .44 point per game pace, nearly what his linemate the previous year had reached.
Problem: his linemate of the previous year had jumped up to .77 points per game.
It wasn’t surprising to see Monahan step so far ahead of Colborne, but it was concerning to watch Colborne barely progress, particularly when he was older and not advancing up the team’s depth charts at all. More points per game is all well and good, but the 2014-15 team played better, and he wasn’t any higher in team scoring.
All of that brings us to this season, which currently sees Colborne with five goals and 15 points over 36 games: a .42 point per game pace, which is roughly where he was last season.
Except here’s the problem with that: he’s averaging roughly 30 more seconds a game this season than he was in 2014-15. More ice time should result in more scoring, because you’re being given more chances to do so.
But Colborne is fourth in average forward ice time this season, and he’s sixth in forward scoring (ninth in team scoring). The three forwards who have received more ice time – Gaudreau, Monahan, and Hudler – are all ahead of him in scoring, as are Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, who have been given less opportunity.
Colborne is also ninth in power play ice time, and the player to play the most with the man advantage with zero points to show for it. All eight Flames above him have at least four points. Backlund, who has played 25:27 fewer than Colborne on the power play, has five points. Even if Colborne was an exceptional even strength player – and nothing has indicated he is – his time on the power play has provided zero justification for him to be out there, and yet, he just kept getting to take part in it, no matter what.
Colborne has played all over the lineup this season, from the fourth line to the first, and this will be his first time visiting the pressbox as a healthy scratch. But this pressbox visit only comes after being given every chance available, more chances than superior players, and consistently proving each and every time that he did not deserve them.
(I’m loathe to bring this up, but: Sven Baertschi found himself in the dog house during his time with the Flames, apparently unable to ever extricate himself from it. This season’s he’s scoring roughly as much as Colborne is, but with significantly less ice time [including power play time]. What if he’d gotten as long of a leash as Colborne has?)
What comes next?
Maybe Colborne just needs to sit in the pressbox and watch to get the message across. He wouldn’t be the first player this technique has been applied to, and it’s possible he could draw back into the lineup next game and be better for having sat this one.
But this is Colborne’s third season with the Flames. He’ll be 26 years old on Jan. 30. We’re well at the point of “what you see is what you get”, and Colborne is a player likely already at his peak. He’s a player who can put some points on the board and occasionally amaze with his plays, while devastating by giving up a prime scoring chance on the very same shift.
Forget the big body. Forget the shootout skill (which I suspect is in part due to the shootout being the one place Colborne can consistently place all of his skills together: the shootout being the one place you don’t need a lick of on-ice awareness). Forget the locality. At best, we’re talking about a depth forward.
And being a depth forward isn’t a bad thing – except the Flames have so many of them. The Flames had too many forwards to start the season, but as the year has gone on, a major weakness of theirs has become evident: they don’t have enough high end forwards. And Colborne has been given a ton of chances this season to prove he will not be one of them.
So that places him in an overloaded group. Josh Jooris is a depth forward. Love him, but Micheal Ferland is likely a depth forward as well. These are two players both younger and cheaper than Colborne, and players who haven’t yet been gifted the opportunities he has.
They’re players who should push him out, alongside guys with already-established roles and contracts such as Lance Bouma (injuries be damned, because this team already made its commitment to him) and Matt Stajan. And that isn’t even counting kids in the AHL making a push to be heard, such as Derek Grant – again, younger than Colborne – and Kenny Agostino.
Colborne is a bottom six player on a team filled to the brim with them who has been given more chances than he should have and failed at every turn. We’ll see what this healthy scratch does for him, but it’s difficult to see just where, exactly, he fits in the Flames’ future plans. We can’t talk about potential anymore, and without potential, what places him above others?