The Central Division has boiled down to a three-horse race between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes. The Bolts and Panthers are fresh off another thriller this past Sunday, a 5-3 Tampa win that could’ve gone either way. The teams have now split the four games against each other with neither looking like they have any type of deciding edge over the other. As we head down the stretch, fourth-line production becomes as important as ever.
That’s where rookie Ross Colton comes in.
So far this season, Tampa head coach Jon Cooper has had to mix and match lines and players, seemingly every shift. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. All teams this season have had to deal with a ton of roster upheaval just to keep the regular season moving and the Bolts are no different. It’s been the teams that have been able to handle it the best that are the ones leading their respective divisions. That holds true for the Lightning as they’ve been able to deal with this crazy season better than almost anybody in the NHL.
Why is that? Well, for starters, they have arguably the most talented roster in the league. That’s saying a lot because we all know who’s missing. Nikita Kucherov is a massive hole for any team to fill, but fill it they have, and they currently lead the Central Division. They’ve received unexpected contributions from players like Jan Rutta, who has played top-pairing minutes for most of the season. Young players like Anthony Cirelli have upped the offensive part of their games, for 20 points in 25 games. Mikhail Sergachev has played every game while placing second on the team in assists with 19. He’s only second because fellow defenseman Victor Hedman is having another fantastic year and leads the team with an astounding 26 helpers.
Fourth Line Consistency Has Been a Problem
The list goes on and on about how many players have been key contributors so far. One semi-Achilles’ heel for the Lightning, however, has been the fourth line. This season has seen countless call-ups and demotions to the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch trying to find a consistent three-man unit. Mathieu Joseph and Patrick Maroon have held it down all season with some solid play, but finding a third player has been difficult. The two have combined for 24 points and a plus-6 rating while trying to give the other teams something to think about from a physical standpoint when they’re out there.
Before Ross Colton was added to that line, it was a bit of a musical chairs-type situation. First, Mitchell Stephens had the job, until he got hurt just four games into the season. Then Alexander Volkov got the nod. He played pretty well at first, but over the course of his 18 games, inconsistency took hold once again. The Lightning even gave 23-year-old Alex Barre-Boulet a turn for a couple of games. Finally, Colton got his chance, and he’s done the job over the last stretch of games, chipping in four points while looking like he belongs out there with Joseph and Maroon.
Colton was an unheralded late-round pick, 118th overall, by the Bolts in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Before that, he had two good seasons for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL before taking his talents to the University of Vermont to play for the Catamounts. His first season in Hockey East was a good one, notching 27 points in 33 games. His second season, unfortunately, wasn’t as productive with just 23 points in 36 contests.
After two seasons, it was on to Syracuse to play for the Crunch. Colton showed good improvement last season over his first campaign in the AHL. He scored three fewer goals, but almost doubled his assist total for 42 total points in 62 games. In his rookie season, he had just 31 points in 66 games, so there was an obvious upward trend.
Colton Has Been Just What the Doctor Ordered
Colton made his NHL debut in a huge game against the Hurricanes back on Feb. 24. In that game, he recorded his first-ever goal as a Lightning player which turned out to be the game-winner in a 3-0 win for Tampa. Incidentally, scoring the game-winning goal in his first game is a feat he shares with Kucherov as the only Lightning players to do that in the 29-year history of the club.
For the next few weeks after that game, Colton must’ve felt a little bit like a yo-yo. After his debut performance, he was immediately returned to the taxi squad, where he remained for the next two games. He returned to the lineup on March 2, but then missed the next four games, not playing again until March 11. He then sat out the next two games before returning March 16 and has been in the lineup ever since.
With all of that constant movement in and out of the lineup, it would be understandable for a young player to maybe gripe a little and be a bit frustrated. That being said, not once has it been reported about any sort of complaining or moping – he has just stayed ready for when his number was called. With 20-plus games left, more roster shuffling is undoubtedly in the cards for the Lightning.
Again, that’s not just their problem – it’s a league problem that’ll hopefully be alleviated as more vaccine doses become available and we can all get back to some normalcy. Until that happens, the team will just have to make the best of a fluid situation that can change at any moment. Colton has proven he can play and be effective at the NHL level. Now he has to prove that he can be a consistent contributor going into the playoffs. If he can do that, the Bolts will finally have found the missing fourth-line piece they’ve been looking for all season.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.