TORONTO - It was one of the most difficult chats Peter Chiarelli has ever had with a player.
It was Feb. 11, and Chiarelli had just dealt highly-touted prospect Joe Colborne to the Maple Leafs along with a first-round and a conditional second-round draft pick in exchange for veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle.
During his tenure as general manager of the Boston Bruins, Chiarelli had informed plenty of players they were moving on. Distasteful or not, it goes hand-in-hand with the job.
But this time, it was more emotional than most.
“When I told him he was traded, well, that was a tough one,” Chiarelli said during a phone interview from Boston on Monday. “He’s such a good kid, such a hard worker.”
Almost 10 months later, Chiarelli likely will have the chance to get a first-hand look at just how much that “good kid” has developed when the Bruins face Colborne’s Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
If he plays, it will be Colborne’s first opportunity to face the team that traded him.
With Mikhail Grabovski having returned to the lineup on Sunday in Anaheim and David Steckel slated to do the same against the Bruins on Wednesday, coach Ron Wilson could have a few difficult decisions ahead when it comes to his cache of available forwards. At the same time, with Colborne having racked up four points in five games alongside Joey Crabb and Matt Frattin, well, why break up a good thing?
From his six-week run among the scoring leaders in the American Hockey League to his impressive albeit brief stint with the Leafs thus far, Colborne’s rapid emergence may have caught some observers off-guard.
But for the man who drafted him 16th overall in the 2008 entry draft for the Bruins, he always expected the gangly kid from Calgary to perform like this.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Chiarelli said, referring to Colborne. “He is a first-round talent who was constantly working toward his dream of the NHL.
“It was tough to let him go, believe me. But we saw a puck-moving defenceman in Kaberle who we felt was a key piece to our title aspirations. In our case, we won the (Stanley) Cup after making the trade, so I guess it was worth it,”
If anyone knows the potential Colborne has, it’s Chiarelli.
Back in 2008, Chiarelli sat in a chilly rink in Cornwall watching Colborne compete in the Centennial Cup for the Camrose Kodiaks, a team with which he collected 90 points in 55 games. The Bruins GM was so impressed by Colborne, the 2008 RBC Canadian Junior A Hockey League Player of the Year, he drafted him a short time later.
Early on there were some rocky times with AHL Providence, the Bruins top farm team. Behind the scenes, however, the organization was constantly working to make him better.
“We stressed a couple of things he needed to work on,” Chiarelli said. “Obviously, the first was his skating. But we also spent a lot of time working with him on how to protect the puck and shield opponents with his big body.”
Indeed, in his brief stint as Colborne’s coach with the Marlies, Dallas Eakins quickly learned what Peter Chiarelli already knew: that Joe Colborne had a gnawing desire to one day realize his full potential.
“He’s made huge improvements,” Eakins said. “I think his skating has improved with his strength. And we stressed how effective he can be down low and on the half boards with that big (6-foot-5) body. He could really kill with his passing, kill with his strength.
“The thing is, he wants it bad. He’s always working on his game, watching video, working out, you name it.”
When Colborne was called up to the Leafs, Eakins gave Wilson the heads-up about how well he and Crabb played together with the Marlies. Wilson reunited them with the Leafs, a familiar combination that has allowed Colborne to flourish early on in his NHL career.
Just like Peter Chiarelli figured he might.