Last summer, the Lightning signed Ross Colton to an Entry Level Contract after his second year of NCAA hockey. The deal meant that Colton would forego the rest of his college career to transition to professional hockey. He’d played well at the University of Vermont posting 50 points in 69 games as an underclassman. And that was enough for the Lightning to give him the opportunity to step up to pro hockey.
In his first season in the AHL, Colton justified the team’s decisions to sign him. On a team stacked with forward talent, he wasn’t expected to be a major contributor. But through consistent production, he earned a regular spot in the lineup playing in 66 games and scoring 31 points including 14 goals and 17 assists. His scoring placed him third among Crunch rookies behind Alex Barré-Boulet and Taylor Raddysh. He was ahead of much more highly touted prospect Boris Katchouk. Even considering that Colton is 18 months older, that’s a surprising outcome.
Colton’s strong rookie season in the AHL likely caught the attention of the Lightning organization. Because of his time in the NCAA, his ELC will expire next summer making him a restricted free agent. And while he looked like a fringe professional last summer, if he can build on his success from last year, he should have no problem earning a new contract and sticking with the organization.
In the rankings this year, most of our staff put him somewhere in the 20s while the readers had him anywhere in the second half of the prospect pool or unranked. That led to him being 23rd among the readers and 24th among the writers. So overall, the community was largely in agreement.
Colton still has a long way to go to be a serious contender for NHL minutes. But not every player makes it to the NHL. And for a player drafted as an overager who was bound for the NCAA, any professional career is a success. Colton showed he’s more than capable of that last season.
Heading into this year, he’ll be a fixture on the Crunch. Last season, he centered the third line (often between fellow rookies Katchouk and Raddysh) and was one of the key penalty killers. At a minimum, expect him to hold on to that role. But if his emergence last season is any indication, don’t be surprised if he earns even more of an opportunity. The Crunch are loaded at forward again but if he continues to develop, he could be banging on the door of the top six. As of now, envisioning a spot where he’d fit on the top two lines is a challenge but with a couple injuries or call ups, he could leapfrog up the lineup.
In terms of players with the most to gain by playing well, Colton will be one of the most interesting players to follow in camp. He showed last season that he’s capable of earning ice time. And that’s what makes him a fun prospect. His opportunity will be largely dependent on if any of the players in front of him make the roster in Tampa. And if they do, expect Colton to take full advantage and be one of the players to fill the voided minutes in Syracuse.
The best way for him to keep moving forward is to keep playing a strong defensive gane while improving his work in the face-off circle. With the offensive talent the Crunch have, he’ll have to fight for his power play time like he did last year (he did have a goal and six assists with the man advantage). His role on the penalty kill should be safe.
In my personal rankings, I left him unranked. But after digging into his season in Syracuse, I think that was probably incorrect. He showed enough that he belongs on this list and maybe even a couple spots higher than he ended up here. But hey, he seems to be the type of player who enjoys proving people wrong and exceeding expectations. So I’ll take my place among the list of people who have underrated him. And don’t be surprised if that list continues to grow in 2019-2020.