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Junior is the best place right now for Colaiacovo

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
by John Iabon

John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for nearly 30 years. For the last 11 years, he has been the managing editor of the team's game day magazine and now you can share his exclusive inside access.

The prospect is a tempting one. Nineteen-year-old rookie defenceman comes to training camp, assumes a position on the leader-board with three goals and six points in six games and has everyone from management to media to fans crowing about being ready for prime time.

Welcome to the Toronto Maple Leafs on the verge of the 2002-03 season where the only question mark remaining after the final pre-season game on October 5 was whether freshman Carlo Colaiacovo was ticketed for the big club or for junior with the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters.

History has shown that defence is the toughest position to play for young newcomers to the National Hockey League. Clubs - the Leafs among them - have rolled the dice and taken a chance only to see the greenhorns on the blue-line be burned time and again, shattering all the promise and putting NHL careers on tenterhooks.

Carlo Colaiacovo will joing the Leafs in Wheeling, West Virginia if he signs by 3 pm Monday but that doesn't mean he still won't be sent back to junior according to Pat Quinn.
Graig Abel Photography
Sometimes, these guys rebound with the club that drafted them with the highest of hopes. Sometimes, they achieve success elsewhere - witness Bryan McCabe's journey from the Islanders to the Canucks to the Blackhawks before blossoming with the Leafs. Sometimes, they just never make it, period.

So here we have the case of Colaiacovo. Impressive? No doubt. Talented? Sure looks like it. Ready for regular employment with the Leafs? It says here, no!

First of all, there was the matter of reaching a contract agreement with the Leafs. Minus that, there's no decision, period, because the rules say he goes back to junior.

But in observing the expressions and listening to the words of Leafs general manager and head coach Pat Quinn, Colaiacovo's performance at training camp has the organization mulling over all the options. Sure, they can drool because of his enormous potential.

Of course, keeping a young defenceman after a training camp isn't new under the Quinn regime with the Leafs. In 1998, Tomas Kaberle, at 20, earned a roster spot and, in fact, played more minutes than anyone (29:13) in his first NHL game on opening night against the Detroit Red Wings.

He was soon flagging at mid-season and only got back to regular duty late in the campaign. He played 57 games, compiled 22 points, then added three more points in 14 playoff games.

But the circumstances were completely different for Kaberle to make the leap. For starters, the Leafs had missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. The Leafs defence consisted of Sylvain Cote, Dallas Eakins, Danny Markov, Mathieu Schneider, Jason Smith and Dmitry Yushkevich so there was room for an upgrade. And, let's not forget Kaberle had two years of service with Poldi Kladno in the Czech Republic Extraleague.

The 2002-03 Leafs seek a fifth trip in a row to the playoffs under Quinn. They come off their second appearance in the final four in the past four years. While the defence struggled at times during the pre-season, the group consisting of McCabe, Kaberle, Aki Berg, Jyrki Lumme, acquisition Robert Svehla, emerging Karel Pilar, versatile Wade Belak and project Ric Jackman puts the Leafs ahead of where they were to start 1998-99.

Colaiacovo was a spectator when the Leafs lost 3-2 in overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their final pre-season tune-up. He watched from the booth reserved for Leafs players in the Foster Hewitt Media Gondola.

To his credit, throughout this modern feel-good story of Boy at Leafs Camp, Colaiacovo has kept things in perspective. He told his family to enjoy watching his time in the blue-and-white, never taking for granted he's here to stay right now.

But the guy has got to play - and eat up lots of ice time because nothing beats maturity and experience when it comes to manning the blue-line at any hockey level. Sitting in the press box on a regular basis or even being rotated in-and-out-of the lineup only stunts his growth. The depth chart on the Leafs defence sees others who will get the lion's share of work. So Colaiacovo's best opportunity for development right now remains in the junior ranks.

Nobody asked me, but that's what I would do if this decision rested with me.
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