by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
There was a time, not too long ago, when forward Joe Colborne stood as the Boston Bruins’ unquestioned top prospect, and with very good reason.
Drafted in the first round (16th overall) by Boston in 2008 following an impressive two-year Junior “A” stint in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Colborne continued to improve his game during two seasons at the University of Denver, including a 2009-10 campaign in which he led the Pioneers with 22 goals in 19 games.
Colborne concluded last season by playing six games with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, his first taste of pro hockey.
Then, the second overall pick in this past June’s draft fell into Boston’s lap, and all of a sudden 18-year-old forward Tyler Seguin became the Bruins’ new can’t-miss prospect.
And while it may be occurring a bit more under the radar than would otherwise have been the case, Colborne is rounding into form nicely in Providence this year as he works toward earning his own spot on the big club sooner rather than later.
“It’s never been an issue,” Colborne said of the spotlight surrounding Seguin. “It was a positive for me I think just knowing that my goal is to win some Stanley Cups, and the way you do that is to start surrounding the team with good young players.”
A 20-year-old native of Calgary, Colborne claims to have been dreaming of reaching the NHL since the tender age of 3 or 4, and it’s hard not to believe him.
From the humble beginnings of shooting countless pucks with his dad in the basement, Colborne eventually suited up for the Junior “A” Camrose Kodiaks in 2006, and a 33-goal, 90-point season in 2007-08 led to his first-round selection by the Bruins.
“That’s the year when I was given an opportunity to be a go-to guy on the team, and I tried to take it to heart and take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the hard work I put in and the number of people I had helping me out to really blossom that year.”
Following his draft year, Colborne participated in three consecutive summer prospects camps in Boston. He went from being an admittedly nervous 18-year-old in 2008 who was unsure of what to expect, to serving as one of the leaders in the camp this past summer, which gave him a leg up heading into his first full NHL training camp.
But with a Bruins squad already deep at the forward position, Colborne knew it would be an uphill battle to stick in the NHL out of camp. Missing several days after taking a stick to the face in his first rookie game didn’t help matters, and Colborne ended up as one of the last players assigned to Providence.
“It was tough, no doubt, but the way I looked at it was here in Providence, we have a great situation with some good, knowledgeable coaches who I’ve already learned a bunch from,” he said. “We have a good team system. Since I’ve been down here, I’ve been working as hard as I can to learn as much as I can and keep improving.”
Colborne noted that over the past several years – and especially this past summer in preparation for turning pro – he’s needed to build up his strength to the point where he can use physical play to his advantage against grown men.
Providence head coach Rob Murray, who has worked with Colborne at prospects camps since he was drafted into the organization, is pleased with the progress thus far.
“I saw a huge difference in his body composition even between the end of last year and this year’s training camp,” said Murray, a former physical forward himself who ranks sixth in AHL history with 1,018 games played over a 15-year career.
“He really dedicated himself to get bigger, to get faster. He was that big guy who was still a little soft when he was first drafted, and he made a commitment this past summer to make sure that he’s put himself in the best position to have success.”
Not surprisingly, the 6-5, 213-pound Colborne needs to consistently utilize that size and strength to make life difficult on opposing defenders in the offensive zone.
“When he’s able to establish position down low with the puck in the offensive zone, it’s very hard for anybody to take him off it,” Murray said. “He’s a big, strong kid, and protects the puck real well, especially if he gets his feet moving.”
“I’ve really been focusing on my puck protection and puck control the past couple years,” Colborne added. “I like to have the puck on my stick as much as possible and make plays, whether it’s for my linemates or opening shots for myself.”
But those plays simply weren’t materializing early in the season, as the rookie went his first eight games for Providence without scoring and managed just four assists during that span.
After nabbing his first professional goal vs. Worcester on Oct. 31, though, Colborne broke out with consecutive two-goal games on Nov. 6 and 7, and he’s now tied for second on the P-Bruins with 11 points (5-6-11) through 15 games overall.
“We went through a lot of video clips the first few weeks I was here,” Colborne said, “little things that can really make a difference in a game, whether it’s tightening up my defensive and neutral zone play, changing different tendencies I had that can help generate an extra chance or two. I definitely listened to what they were telling me and incorporated it into my game.”
For his part, Murray has been impressed with Colborne’s mindset right from the get-go.
Despite his status as a top prospect, he didn’t bring a sour attitude with him down Interstate 95 from Boston to Providence after being assigned to the AHL, and he’s always open to feedback.
“There was a reason why he wasn’t having success, and I wanted to show him why,” Murray said. “There were a lot of details he needed to clean up, he was receptive to it, and as he started to do that, so came his success.
“He wasn’t getting the puck enough earlier in the season because he tended to be out of position. Once he started cleaning that up, all of a sudden he found himself with the puck a lot more, and he’s having a lot more success.”
A natural center who played primarily at wing last year at Denver, Colborne is back in the middle to start his pro career.
With the logjam of established NHL centers currently occupying Boston’s roster, though – Marc Savard when healthy, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron top among them – Colborne may ultimately need to suit up as a winger if he’s going to make the jump up.
To say the least, he’d be open to that scenario.
“(At wing), I felt like I was really able to learn the position quickly, and by the end of the year I felt like it was a pretty natural position for me,” he said. “If that’s the way I can make it to the big club, I’d be more than happy to play wing, and I feel like I’d be able to make the transition pretty quickly.”
A case can undoubtedly be made that in several other organizations with more forward slots available, Colborne would already be in the NHL, but he wouldn’t have it any other way right now.
“From day one when I got drafted, it’s been pretty special here,” Colborne said. “The history behind all the greats that have played in Boston, it definitely brings you some excitement and makes me want to improve and get to play up there even more.