10 NHL insights and observations: Ross Colton is Tampa's latest mid-round revelation

·15 min read

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at Luke Schenn, Nick Ritchie, Ross Colton, Mike Bossy and the underappreciated Islanders, goal differential trends and more.

1. Appreciating Luke Schenn

When Luke Schenn was drafted in 2008, he was drawing comparisons to Luke Richardson. Nearly 15 years later, it turned out to be a fairly reasonable comparison. It’ll be difficult for Schenn to match the 1,417 games he played (plus 69 playoff games), but Schenn has a decent chance to hit 1,000 games in the league as he’s sitting at 858 and will be turning just 33 this year.

There was a time where it really looked like he was on the outs of the league. At 29 he was waived by the Anaheim Ducks and demoted to the AHL for the first time. There was some talk about whether he would even want to report. But he did. Then he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks, where he also saw time in the AHL. In the summer he signed with Tampa Bay and latched on as a depth, part-time defender. That included winning two Stanley Cups in a row, the first one playing 11 games, the second one playing eight. He was the clear seventh, but he saw time and provided some reasonable minutes. In the summer he signed with Vancouver, but this time to play strictly with the NHL team.

Schenn is averaging over 17 minutes per outing and has played 61 games already. He has not played that much since the 2016-2017 season with Arizona. That’s five seasons ago! Now he’s pairing up with Quinn Hughes regularly, a duo that is swimming slightly above water and is even in goals scored/allowed. It’s a really nice story and career rebound, which you usually see with skill players but not exactly depth, defensive defensemen. He’s a well-liked teammate, and who wouldn’t when he does stuff like this:

Part of me will always wonder what he would have become if he wasn’t rushed right into the league after being drafted to a poor team. But he has fought through a lot to put together a good career in the league.

2. Alex Formenton's fascinating development path

This season hasn’t quite gone the way the Ottawa Senators expected but if they are looking for positives, Alex Formenton is one of them. His name has been around for a few years now but he’s still just 22 and he’s up to 17 goals on a reasonable 11.2 shooting percentage. Before we get to his game now though, let’s quickly go back to his pretty fascinating career arc to date. When he was drafted to the OHL by the London Knights in 2015, he was listed at 5’7 and 120 pounds, which was a big reason he dropped to the 11th round. After being drafted he went to play Jr. 'A' in the OJHL where he was seventh on his team in scoring with 26 points in 54 games. He was a true development prospect in the OHL, and in his first season in the OHL that followed, he put up 34 points in 65 games, followed by a zero-point performance in 14 playoff games. But at some point after being selected, he hit a growth spurt and the speed and skill that got him drafted suddenly had size to go with it.

When the Senators took him in the second round, he was listed at 6’1, 166 pounds. Formenton is now listed at 6’3 and nearly 200 pounds. His following season in the OHL he broke out and put up a point per game, and he even earned a call-up game with the Senators. When he went to the AHL, he spent nearly a full season there putting up 27 goals and 53 points in 61 games. The next season, his development path was wonky, combining to play 33 games (20 in the NHL, 13 in the AHL, combining for 10 points). You never know how that will impact the development of a player overall, but he has started to put it together this season. In a recent game against Vancouver, he was arguably the best Senator on the ice. This play is just tantalizing — the speed off the rush, the leg kick to protect the puck, the pull and shoot short side to finish on a high-end goalie.

3. Nice to see Kevin Hayes thriving on the ice again

It has been an awful year for Kevin Hayes, on and off the ice. The tragic passing of his brother and needing three surgeries to his midsection since the end of last season. It’s simply nice to see him playing regularly again — and he has been playing well. Since March 1, he leads all Flyers in scoring with 20 points in 23 games. He is playing almost 20 minutes per night, which leads all Flyers over that span as well.

Hayes is playing his regular roles: giving the Flyers good minutes up the middle, on the power play and penalty kill. He is playing regularly with JVR and Travis Konecny. The Flyers have some good players but have been caught in a strange limbo for years now. They’ve made the playoffs every other year for the past decade — a streak that will end this season. They’ve only advanced past the first round once in those 10 years. Before that, they made at least the second round in three straight seasons, including the Stanley Cup Final once. Hayes turns 30 next month. He still has good hockey in him. At his best, he’s a true delight to watch kill penalties.

As this long Flyers season finally comes to a close, there’s some solace in seeing Hayes’ game rebound.

4. Ross Colton is Tampa's latest success story

Tampa Bay has been a great organization for quite some time now, and a big part of that has been their ability to develop players. You could argue it started with one of the best AHL teams all-time (coached by Jon Cooper), that included Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brett Connolly, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, JT Brown, Radko Gudas, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cory Conacher. They have churned out a number of other players since and now one of the newest bursting onto the scene is Ross Colton. A fourth-round pick in 2016, he followed the Tampa Bay development path, playing two full seasons in the AHL before even getting a sniff in the league.

Ross Colton should play a huge factor in any success the Lightning have this NHL postseason. (Getty)
Ross Colton should play a huge factor in any success the Lightning have this NHL postseason. (Getty)

But the signs were there last year that this would be a player. He had nine goals and 12 points in 30 regular season games, before playing all 23 games in Tampa’s Cup run last season. When Tampa lost their entire third line, he was a player to circle as someone they would expect and need more from to fill the void. Through 73 games he’s up to 19 goals and 35 points, in his first true full season at the age of 25. His most common linemates (Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk and even Mathieu Joseph), have all been traded away this season. Recently, he’s been lining up with Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat, and he does not look out of his place at all.

Listed at six foot, he is stocky and strong, but he has the speed to keep up with Tampa’s skill players. Colton has a nice snapper, and he’s seeing time on the half-wall with the second power play unit. In Tampa Bay he’ll always be remembered for scoring the Cup winning goal against Montreal, but around the league he’s going to get a lot more well known.

5. When healthy, Jakub Vrana is a gamebreaker

Hard to think that Jakub Vrana is still just 26 years old — it was nearly eight years ago that the Washington Capitals drafted him 13th overall in 2014. He has flashed and teased with his skill, and even put together some really nice seasons, particularly a 25-goal effort in just 69 games back in the 2019-2020 season. But the Capitals wanted a different type of player and ultimately moved him in a package that netted them Anthony Mantha. Since arriving in Detroit, he has barely played (which is an issue, of course), but when he has dressed, all Vrana has done is score. He has 20 goals in 32 games with the Red Wings. He is playing primarily with Pius Suter and their ability to control play is barely existent, but off the rush or with any time and space whatsoever, he is money. This was almost too easy for him.

A couple weeks earlier, he beats a barely screened Alexandar Georgiev almost standing still from outside the hash marks.

He is full marks for offense and signed for two more years. The Red Wings are 22nd in goals for per game this season. Last season they were 30th. They have a lot of issues to sort through but a healthy Vrana is one less thing to think about. The offense is there. He’s the gamebreaker they thought they were getting when they traded away Mantha.

6. Nick Ritchie's weird year

This hasn’t been the season Nick Ritchie originally envisioned. He was not qualified by the Boston Bruins after a reasonably productive 2020-21. That gave him the opportunity to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, where he was the forward they paid the most money in free agency in the offseason. It feels like an eternity ago that he lined up for the first faceoff of the Leafs season, alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner. He got every opportunity with them, playing on all four lines and eventually was sent down to the AHL. Eventually he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in a move that not only netted the Leafs Ilya Lyubushkin for this season, but cleared Ritchie’s contract off the books for next.

Since getting moved to Arizona, Ritchie has found some confidence, and rediscovered some of his goal scoring. His size always gets mentioned first, but considering how little he uses it, it’s really his shot that makes or breaks his game. In Arizona he has 10 goals in 24 games. It should be noted he’s shooting over 24 percent, but he was shooting under four percent with the Leafs so when you tie all together, he’s at 12 goals in 57 games (slightly off his 15 goals in 56 games last season), shooting a reasonable but slightly high 12.9 percent. This is one an absolute bomb.

He is playing primarily with Barrett Hayton and Loui Eriksson. The line isn’t exactly a world beater but after Boston didn’t qualify him and the Leafs quickly moved on as well, he needed to show a little something to stick in the league. So far, he is.

7. Matt Grzelcyk standing tall on Bruins blue line

The Boston Bruins have always had a reputation of being “the big, bad, Bruins” and while there’s certainly merit to that, they have had a number of really good undersized players over the years. Brad Marchand stands out, of course. As does Torey Krug. Andrew Ference wasn’t the biggest (though he played bigger than he is), Ryan Spooner gave them some good seasons. Matt Grzelcyk is not exactly new at this point — over 300 games played, plus another 54 in the playoffs, all for the Bruins – but he has become a nice regular for the team.

Signed for two more years at a reasonable $3.68-million cap hit, the 5’9 defender has averaged just under 19 minutes per game for the Bruins over the past four seasons and can provide some offense. He has a modest career-high 24-point season going right now. Last season he had 20 points in just 37 games. He has played generally with either Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo this season. With the acquisition of Hampus Lindholm, he looks destined to stay with Carlo, even though he and McAvoy had a +18 goal differential together at 5v5 (27-9), and controlled over 60 percent of the shot share. He has a nice snap shot that he needs to use more (only 1.65 shots on net per game — last season was the only time he’s ever been over 2 shots per game). But his speed is noticeable out there. He’s able to close gaps quickly and transition the puck up ice well. He can join the rush and finish, or act as a decoy. He brings a lot of speed to this defense and team in general. A nice player that can fall under the radar.

8. Jonathan Quick leading LA's bounce-back

Seems like forever ago that the Los Angeles Kings signed Jonathan Quick to a 10 year contract worth $58 million. The Kings Twitter account sent out a now infamous tweet when the signing happened and Quick has had ups and downs since that signing, playing for a Kings team that struggled to transition from their Cup winning and contending days to a new core. There was a long and rocky rebuild. They have made the playoffs twice in the past seven seasons. In those two appearances they were swept, and they lost in five. So since winning their second Cup in three seasons, they’ve won one playoff game total.

Drew Doughty was vocal about needing to see progress in the offseason. This season, the Kings have finally started to trend in the right direction and look like a team where the best is yet to come. The Kings are currently in a dogfight to make the playoffs and life didn’t get any easier when they lost Doughty — who was playing great hockey — for the season. I wouldn’t go so far to say "enter Jonathan Quick," but it has been nice to see some vintage Quick performances down the stretch here. A few weeks ago he turned in an excellent game against the top seeded Florida Panthers, netting a 3-2 shootout win. In the Kings last two games, he started both and was great, giving up one goal in each which was particularly exceptional considering they only won both games 2-1. When the season ends, Quick only has one year remaining on that 10-year contract. It has been a long road. They have four games left against four teams that are out or very close to out (Blackhawks, Ducks, Kraken and Canucks). The opportunity is there for the taking and it’s a nice little story to seeing Quick turning up his play while making the push.

9. Goal differential trends

Always interested in how playoff teams rank in certain categories. One that I always pay attention to is goal differential, and this year we potentially have multiple teams that can qualify for the playoffs with a minus goal differential. As of this writing, the LA Kings (-3) and Dallas Stars (-9) are each sitting in a playoff spot with minus goal differentials. There’s not much point in looking at a shortened bubble season so we will skip that one. In the 2019-2020 season that was cut short by COVID, the Islanders were eleventh in the league overall with a minus goal differential (though it was just -1 and they would have had 14 games to fix that). The Predators and Flames were each in the top eight in the West with negative goal differentials as well, though just -2 and -5 respectively, and again with a number of games left to even that out.

The two full seasons before that, every team that qualified for the playoffs had a positive goal differential. In fact, there were teams in each of those seasons that missed the playoffs despite having positive goal differentials. The season before that, the Ottawa Senators made the playoffs with a negative goal differential then made it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The West playoff race is fluid at this point — we know Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis and Calgary are in. Edmonton appears fairly likely to make it at this point. The other three spots could go any number of ways. Usually you want to side with teams that score more than they give up on the whole, but this looks like a season where we are getting a team or two making it that gave up more goals than they scored.

10. Remembering Mike Bossy

It's criminal how little attention the early 1980s New York Islanders get. They are one of the best dynasties of all-time in any sport, ever. The Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1980 and 1983. Their 19 consecutive playoff series wins between 1980 and 1984 is a feat that remains unparalleled in the history of professional sports. I don’t think we’ll see any team, in any sport, ever do that again. Nobody will likely even come close. Central to that run, is one of the greatest goal scorers of all-time, if not the greatest. This pretty well sums it up.

His career average equates to 62 goals per 82 games. That’s over his entire career! Unfortunately, his career was cut way too short at the age of 30 and now he tragically passed away at the age of 65. One of the best goal scorers ever, on one of the best dynasties ever, gone way too soon. Rest in Peace, Mike Bossy.

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