TAMPA — Ross Colton certainly made his adjustment to the NHL look easy, scoring eight goals in his first 15 games. But the Lightning rookie forward’s early success was a result of several years of hard work and some tough talks behind the scenes.
The 24-year-old has shown a penchant for coming through in big moments. Of his eight goals, six have either tied the score or given the Lightning the lead. And he scored most of those goals while playing on a fourth line more dedicated to dirty work than carrying the offense.
It’s one thing to be prepared for the highest level, but it’s another to have a mentality that there’s always room to grow, and that’s what Colton developed in the AHL playing for the Syracuse Crunch. And that’s what should carry him through the inevitable ups and downs of playing in the NHL.
“I definitely feel like I have some confidence going right now,” Colton said. “But I still feel like I have that same hunger from Day 1 that I got called up because we have so many guys here that are still fighting to get in the lineup and if I get a little too complacent, I by no means have my spot solidified.”
His development plan was not unlike other young players who go through the Lightning’s farm system. When Colton arrived in Syracuse after two years of collegiate hockey at the University of Vermont, Crunch coach Ben Groulx put him on a three-year plan to get him to Tampa. Colton’s weaknesses were pretty clear early. He needed to become a better skater and to work on his diet and conditioning.
“He was always on me,” Colton said of Groulx. “Especially my first year, he was super hard on me. He pushed me and ... told me to play in all three zones and really taught me how to play hard, because you come up to this level you can kind of get complacent and you think that it’s easy and you just want to score because everyone can score when you’re in junior and in those other leagues. But when you get to the next level, you’ve got to learn how to play in all three zones.”
Colton’s improvement was gradual. He always had the work ethic, and he earned a letter on his sweater last season. He scored 11 goals, but probably deserved five or six more, Groulx said. When Colton returned this season, his third at Syracuse, he made a breakthrough.
The pandemic was a challenge to every hockey player because it was difficult to find places to skate and work out during lockdowns. The fact that Colton reported to training camp and later Syracuse in his best physical condition was a testament to his hard work.
“At the beginning of the year, you could ask anyone in Syracuse how dominant he was on the ice,” Groulx said. “I had other coaches in the league, texting me like, ‘Oh man, this guy’s unreal this year.’ ...
“He really became a pro. I think when every year you improve your conditioning, every year you’re more fit, every year you’re faster, it shows your commitment.”
Once Colton reached the NHL, he made an immediate impact, and there’s no confidence builder like quick success. Before his first game, Colton received a text from Groulx, reminding him of something he always tells his team in Syracuse, “It’s just a hockey game,” which calmed Colton’s nerves.
He scored on his second shift of his NHL debut, a Feb. 24 home win over Carolina. In his fourth game on March 16, he was plucked for the first round of a shootout and scored in the Lightning’s win in Dallas. Since then, he has found ways to provide scoring at times when the Lightning have needed it most.
He formed quick chemistry with Pat Maroon and Mathieu Joseph centering the fourth line, and for a pair of games was moved up to the team’s second line to play wing — something he hadn’t done since juniors — shortly after Steven Stamkos went out with an injury.
“I think his timing has been really good of late,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s been out there in some key situations for us. We’ve trusted him to do well and when you have a hot stick like that, you’ve got to put these guys out there and give them a chance and he’s definitely making the best of it.”
Alex Killorn said Colton’s start reminded him of when forward Anthony Cirelli came up at the end of the 2017-18 season, scored in his debut, tallied 11 points in 18 games and became an instant contributor in the playoffs. Four of Cirelli’s first five goals either tied the score or put the Lightning ahead.
“It’s kind of similar to when Cirelli came up scoring big goals,” Killorn said. “He had scored them his whole career. To do it at the NHL level in a lot of these situations, where it seems like he’s the guy that’s getting us back into these games, for a guy that young to be doing that, and he continues to do it, it’s not like a one-off thing. It’s really impressive and if you keep doing that, you’re playing this league for a long time.”
If Colton has a beginning to his career anywhere close to Cirelli, who has developed into a top-six, two-way forward, the Lightning will be ecstatic. Colton knows he needs to improve on his defense to become the player he aspires to be. He is currently without a point in his past four games.
He’s playing over Mitchell Stephens, who opened the season as the team’s fourth-line center before an injury, and when Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov return, there will be a roster crunch.
“I still come to the rink every day with the mindset of, ‘I’ve got to get better, I’ve got to learn from these other guys.’ And now, I’ve got to push them and they’ve got to push me to get better,” he said. “So I’m still as hungry as I was on Day 1, and I’m just excited to finish the season and go from there.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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