TAMPA — Perhaps tonight, against the Rangers at the St. Pete Times Forum, Ryan Malone will play.
It's been three weeks since the Lightning left wing was in a game. He's been around, practicing with the team or skating with the coaches, as he rehabilitates after arthroscopic surgery cleaned out cartilage in his left knee.
But being around and helping the cause are different things.
"It's just frustrating," Malone said. "That's the biggest word you can use."
It's a word Malone said also sums up his two seasons with Tampa Bay, both of which have hinted at brilliance but because of injuries and circumstance have not lived up to the hype.
Signed to a seven-year, $31.5 million contract on June 30, 2008, two days after shoot-from-the-lip owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie sent a third-round draft pick to the Penguins for the rights to him and Gary Roberts, Malone, a rugged goal scorer, was a symbol of a promised Lightning turnaround.
The new owners would be bold. The team was going to win the Southeast Division. "We'll spend to the (salary) cap," Malone added. "It's a credit card commercial, isn't it? Fill in the fine print."
For Malone, 30, of Pittsburgh, that includes 15 goals in his first 22 games this season, when his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame caused havoc for goalies in front of the net, but just six goals in his past 43 games and none in his past 15.
Last season's 26 goals were one off his career high, set in 2007-08. But he had just three goals in his first 15 games after a short summer caused by the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup final, and two in his last 12.
Perhaps that is why coach Rick Tocchet said, "I think this is another year to learn for 'Bugs.' Consistency has to be a big thing in his game."
Malone has had nagging injuries, and he said his knee problem goes back to the 2008 playoffs. He said he expected to clean it up this summer. But when an undisclosed upper-body injury cropped up, he figured why not "kill two birds with one stone" and do it immediately.
Asked if the team wanted him to do it during February's Olympic break rather than play for the United States, for which he scored three goals, Malone said, "Not really. It got a little worse than it has been. But to me, at the time, the knee could have waited until after the season, so it wasn't a problem."
As for his problem scoring?
For a time beginning in late January, Malone played on center Nate Thompson's checking line after previously playing on scoring lines with Steven Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier.
Though the line was successful defensively — "We had some good chemistry, so it was fun," Thompson said — its objective, to help stop opponents' top lines, naturally limited offensive opportunities.
But Tocchet was more critical.
"For whatever reason, the intensity level wasn't what it was the first six weeks," he said. "That's what I felt. When (Malone is) engaged and on top of the puck, he's a good player."
Malone said he believes the elements are there for consistent success: "This year I felt good, for the most part."
And though he said, "It's frustrating in two years not getting a sniff" of the playoffs, he added, "You're looking at another great summer of training, so hopefully the following season will be the career year."