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Down and out Maple Leafs pin hopes on youth

The Toronto Maple Leafs have called up Marlies forward Joe Colborne. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Mike Cassese

Mike Cassese/Reuters

Another game, another injured veteran for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The casualty this time was Mikhail Grabovski, who suffered a deep cut to his leg late in Saturday's win and is day-to-day.

His replacement? Young Joe Colborne, he of only two points in his last 19 games in the minors, hardly the kind of production expected to earn a recall.

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"Yeah, I was, actually," Colborne said when asked if he was surprised to get the call. "There are a lot of guys who are producing more on the scoresheet than me."

Maybe so. But with three games left, the Leafs are hardly worried about icing a veteran-laden roster.

This last week of playing out the string is more about evaluation than anything, even with coach Randy Carlyle making noise on Monday about how important wins will be.

It's also about selling some hope, as one of the few things that has gone right organizationally under Leafs GM Brian Burke has been a slow and steady improvement in the minors.

After three wins over the weekend, the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies have more points than all but two other AHL teams. Meanwhile, the Leafs are looking much like the Toronto Maple Marlies, with no fewer than six players in the lineup who will be heading back to the AHL in time for the playoffs.

While Toronto lacks much high-end talent – due in large part to the Phil Kessel trade that shipped out three high picks in 2010 and 2011 – there's some depth there.

That's a welcome change from former GM John Ferguson's reign, when the AHL team was an afterthought and the likes of Justin Pogge and Jiri Tlusty were considered the organization's top prospects.

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Now, even with their team in the league basement yet again, Burke and Co. can point to their youngsters like Jake Gardiner, Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Carter Ashton as signs of some modest progress.

(Recent research by hockey analyst Jonathan Willis suggests that since the 2004-05 lockout there's been a correlation between having a strong AHL team and NHL success two or three years down the road.)

Part of the problem with selling hope in Toronto, however, is that it often gets oversold, even to the point of being a detriment to the player. Joe Colborne's a good example.

A 6-foot-5, 21-year-old centre, Colborne's been hyped as a potential answer to the Leafs' woes down the middle since coming over in the Tomas Kaberle trade from the Boston Bruins midway through last season.

The reality is that the former first-round pick has laboured in the minors after a strong start, dropping essentially to third-line duties as the Marlies have made their playoff push.

On the season, Colborne has only 37 points in 60 games, a far cry from what an NHL-ready prospect would produce in the AHL at his age.

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At best, that type of production would put him in line for a third or fourth-line role down the road, but with expectations being what they are – and this plum assignment in Tuesday's game in Buffalo – Colborne will be hailed by some as a solution to some of the uncomfortable questions facing Burke this off-season.

That said, there's no harm in a late-season call-up and a quick look under a new coach, especially when a loss is more beneficial than a win. So they'll let the kids play – right now for the Leafs and then in a week for the only Toronto team headed to the playoffs this season.

"I'm going to take this opportunity and run with it," Colborne said. "I'm looking forward to showing everyone what I can do."

"Coming up at this time of year isn't really all that auspicious of a time to come up," Scrivens said, becoming the first NHLer to use auspicious in a sentence. "You've just got to give it your best effort."

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