What would a new contract for Ross Colton cost the Tampa Bay Lightning?
In terms of restricted free agents, the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t really have that many to worry about at the NHL level. Thanks to a bevy of extensions handed out last season by general manager Julien BriseBois, the core group of young players like Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli were locked in last summer. That doesn’t mean Mr. BriseBois can kick back and drink mojitos for the next couple of months. There are still two RFAs that need new deals - Tanner Jeannot and Ross Colton. We’ll talk about Jeannot at a future date, but for now let’s explore what a new deal for Ross Colton may look like.
There has been some speculation that the Lightning might be willing to trade their 2016 fourth-round pick. Spurred on a bit by placing ninth on Frank Seravalli’s Trade Target list back at the end of April, there have been some rumors floating around that he is on the proverbial trading block with fans from Vancouver to New Jersey expressing interest. The Daily Faceoff writer’s reasoning was fairly simple, Colton is due a decent-sized raise and the Lightning are strapped for cap space. As a versatile middle-sixer, Colton could draw interest from a wide range of teams.
That is all true. It would be a way for the Lightning to figure out their cap situation (and leave room for an Alex Killorn contract) while also recouping some draft capital. However, his spot on the roster would still have to be replaced either internally or through free agency, which would negate the cost savings. Also, if we are to take Mr. BriseBois at his word, he wasn’t planning on having to move anyone that was under contract off of the roster, which we can infer to mean restricted free agents as well.
If the intention is to re-sign Colton, what might that deal look like? It’s an interesting situation that Colton is in right now. He is a RFA with arbitration rights so he does have the opportunity to argue what his worth might be if he’s not happy with the Lightning’s qualifying offer. Per CapFriendly, since his base salary was over $1,000,000 the Bolts’ minimum offer is 100% of what he made last season ($1,250,000) to retain his rights.
He is coming off of his first multi-year contract, a two-year, $2.25 million deal he signed prior to the 2021-22 season. Sometimes it's hard to believe that he only has two full seasons under his belt in the league.
The Lightning have until the Monday after the Entry Draft to submit a qualifying offer. With a late draft this year, that would put the date at July 3rd, a few days into the unrestricted free agent period and a couple of days after RFAs can sign offer sheets. So, yeah, it’s a weird offseason already. It's unlikely that any other team will offer sheet him at a price the Lightning aren't willing to match.
Colton is obviously worth more than $1.25 million to the Lightning, a point his agent would strenuously argue in any arbitration hearings, so it’s very unlikely that the New Jersey native would agree to whatever the Bolts send out as a qualifying offer. What he would actually agree to might be a murkier answer.
As Seravalli pointed out in his post, Colton is looking to get paid. He’s in his prime-earning years and maybe has one shot at a contract that sets him up for life. Does he sign a long-term deal in Tampa that might have a little lower AAV but a longer term, or does he sign a short-term deal and bet on being able to cash in next year or the year after when the salary cap is supposedly set to escalate and GMs that have been tightening purse strings for the past three years sign some wildly reckless contracts?
Evolving Hockey has him projected to sign a 4-year deal with an annual average value of $3,351,000. That’s not an unrealistic amount to be honest and if he were to sign that deal, the Lightning could live with it and still make some moves to fill out their roster. They could push that number down by running it out a few more years. If they feel Colton is part of their core moving forward, a 7-year deal close to what Nick Paul signed last year ($3,150,000 AAV) would be reasonable as well. While it would take a nice chunk out of the approximately $8.5 million in cap space the Lightning have (factoring in Brent Seabrook on LTIR) it’s a realistic number for what he brings to the team.
At his base level, Colton is a 15-goal, 35-point middle six forward that can play center or wing, kill some penalties, and work a second-unit power player. He is versatile and on the open market that would make him valuable. Players with that kind of production are all over the salary map. For instance Andrew Mangiapane had a 43-point season and his cap hit to Calgary is $5.8 million while Barclay Goodrow was at $3.6 million for his 31-point season.
Colton did see his numbers drop off a bit in his sophomore year as he posted a 16-goal, 16-assist season a year after putting up 22 goals and 17 assists as a rookie. While he was upside down on the expected goals for metric (49.61%) it was more from a lack of offense than defense as the Lightning posted a 2.67 xGA while he was on the ice, the 6th lowest number among forwards on the team.
He bounced around a bit for most of the season with playing time split between the third and fourth line as well as between center and on the wing. His most frequent linemate over the course of the season was Nick Paul and a rotating host of other wingers. They were fine, not great or bad, as a third line with a slightly positive slant on possession numbers. The Bolts could have benefited from more offensive production from them, especially down the stretch, but outside of that they did what a third line should do, limit offensive chances by the other team.
With the right situation and playing time, Colton could push into the 20-goal, 50-point territory on a regular basis. He already has one 20+ goal season on his resumé and with an increase in playing time over his career average of 12:15, it isn’t unreasonable to think he can do it again. It’s possible that he will get a shot on the second line (if Killorn moves on) and that could boost his value if he’s able to hold onto that spot.
Even if he doesn’t, as a Swiss Army knife type of player that can fill any spot on the bottom-six, he is worth a contract in the low-to-mid $3 million range. There will likely be a no-trade clause of some type included in the deal. As much as fans don’t like it, it’s the other side of the coin that comes with Florida’s no state tax benefit. They have to have some say as to where the Lightning might trade them so that they don’t end up in a heavily taxed area that slices the value of the deal in half.
Whatever deal he does sign will take him to unrestricted free agency. So, the question becomes if he wants to bet on himself on a short term deal that will allow him to hit the open market before the age of 30. That’s when things might get a little dicey for the Lightning. If he’s looking for a one or two-year deal that’s closer to an AAV of $4-4.5 million, the cap hit might not be worth it. At that point the Lightning might put out a few feelers for a trade.
Personally, I would lean to Colton staying in Tampa on a long-term deal. Our prediction: Colton signs a six-year contract for $3.15 million with a limited no-trade clause.