The Tampa Bay Lightning‘s offseason has officially begun early, marking the first time since 2019 that the team has failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Final. With numerous questions and concerns to address before next season, one of the major issues is what to do with their pending free agents, including scheduled Restricted Free Agent, Ross Colton.
According to Cap Friendly, the team has around $8.475 million in effective cap space for the 2023-24 season, with 16 of 23 roster spots already filled. The Lightning has eight players scheduled to be either unrestricted or restricted free agents who finished the past season in the NHL.
Depending on how many of the available roster slots Julien BriseBois wants to fill before opening night, the team may have as little as $1.156M to $1.85M per player to spend, assuming no cap-clearing trades are made. With fan-favorite winger Alex Killorn in need of a new contract and potentially due for a raise from his old $4.45M salary, the team may have to let some players go in order to make the salary cap work. One of those casualties could be Ross Colton.
The Lightning are in a difficult position with Colton. While he has scored multiple clutch playoff goals throughout his short NHL career, his quality of play and production took a slight step backward this past regular season, with 16 goals and 32 points in 81 games, down from 22 goals and 39 points in 79 games in 2021-22. His 5 on 5 On-Ice Goals % also dipped from 52.8% to 45.7%, per Money Puck.
One factor that could complicate Colton’s contract negotiations is the fact that he is eligible for arbitration this Summer, a process in which certain restricted free agents can have their contracts determined by a neutral party. This is a taboo for many teams and players, as arbitration negotiations can be a tough process that forces teams to try to diminish the value of a certain player to land a cheaper contract from the arbitrator. If the team and player cannot agree on a contract, both parties must honor the ruling if they want to remain together, although a team can choose to decline the ruling, but then the player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent.
This is not the first time the Lightning have faced a similar situation. In 2020, the team decided not to extend a qualifying offer to Carter Verhaeghe, instead of risking arbitration. Verhaeghe went on to sign a two-year, $1M AAV contract with the Florida Panthers, where he has since made a significant impact in the playoffs, now facing his former team as their in-state rivals.
The Lightning must also consider Tanner Jeannot, whom they acquired at the trade deadline and is also a restricted free agent eligible for arbitration. If the team opts not to re-sign Killorn, both Colton and Jeannot could potentially return, but re-signing Killorn likely means the end for one of them in Tampa Bay. Given that the team traded away five draft picks and a young player to acquire Jeannot, it’s difficult to imagine that they would simply let him go.
While the team will undoubtedly try to re-sign Ross Colton, it is possible that they may choose to address other holes on the roster instead of re-signing a third-liner. If July 1 rolls around and there’s no extension in place, the team may decide to thank Colton for his service to the team and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, or possibly even trade his rights prior to July 1.