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2021 Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25: #4 Ross Colton

A Cinderella season, but what’s next?

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
TAMPA, FLORIDA - JULY 07: Ross Colton #79 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with the Stanley Cup following the victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Amalie Arena on July 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Canadiens 1-0 to take the series four games to one.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s amazing to see what’s changed in a year for Ross Colton. A year ago, he finished 12th in our T25U25 prospect rankings and was starting the season in the AHL. In the year since, Colton has helped bring home a Stanley Cup championship that earned him a healthy raise and a bigger role for this season’s team.

I’m of two minds about Colton the player and how he can be evaluated. On one hand, he’s very much like Mathieu Joseph (whom I wrote about yesterday): hard working rush offense with a respectable scoring touch. On the other hand we only have 30+23 games of data on him, with the first half of that showing a positive shot-share player who had an elevated shooting and save percentage, and the second half showing a negative shot-share player still with insanely lucky shooting and positive goaltending.

I believe in the player and what I see on the ice, but I also know that we saw an absolutely Cinderella season from Colton when it came to bounces and riding the high that came with making the team. We haven’t seen him struggle, for the goals to go the other way, and how he reacts to it.

I brought this up all the time last season but this is what happened to Pierre Engvall on Toronto (who also signed an identical contract after a hot start). He had a poor year last year where the bounces didn’t go his way and his offense dried up. It wasn’t Engvall’s personal fault, it was just luck getting the better of him and he was suddenly not winning his minutes anymore. When it comes to Colton, I worry the Lightning have made him Plan A, despite not knowing his full capacity in the NHL.

Do I think Colton is likely to overcome that hurdle and show he can push play when given real minutes? Yes, but I was hoping the Lightning would find a little more insurance over the summer beyond Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — who is great - but is beyond his years of playing above the fourth line. I think Julien BriseBois had to make this bet because he literally couldn’t afford anything else, but it’s a bet nonetheless.

We all knew going into this season the Lightning weren’t going to carry the same depth that they had used to brilliant effect the last two seasons. But now that the third line for Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow is completely gone, it’s probably important to put their production into context and describe the massive shoes Colton, Joseph, and Corey Perry (I know) will have to replace to some degree.

First is the zone time and usage. The old third line played about 15 minutes a night (+5 from the fourth line), with zone starts skewing in the defensive zone more than any other line, and doing it against the other teams’ top lines. They didn’t take on all this burden, but they were Jon Cooper’s first choice. And why wouldn’t they be because they were a 57% shot share and expected goal team doing that kind of work. One could argue they were the most dominant defensive line in all of hockey possibly since Datsyuk.

Looking ahead, a lot of that responsibility won’t be falling on the third line, it’ll be going onto the newly-paid top six. Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli are going to have harder jobs this season despite their linemates not changing on paper. Now they’re going to have an on-ice profile closer to other top-six lines in the league. More minutes, but tougher match-ups. It’s helpful that Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn are still around to share that defensive burden after rumors they were possibly going to be cap casualties as well.

Ross Colton won’t have to perfectly fit the shoe that is the third line role, unlike Cinderella after she lost her fancy dress, but this season is going to be a lot harder than last year was. I hope expectations are set at a reasonable level for him. There will be growing pains, the math says the bounces likely won’t go his way, and the team is no longer as good as the All-Star team it had before.

But heck if I don’t believe in Ross Colton, his young teammates, and most importantly the superstars up front having the goods for a three-peat.