Ryan Malone might have played his last game with the Lightning.
The veteran wing is a prime candidate for a compliance buyout, with Tampa Bay having one left after using its first on Vinny Lecavalier last summer. The buyout period begins at midnight tonight and ends June 30.
Neither Malone, 34, nor his agent would comment, but he realizes he's a candidate.
And Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, speaking in general about Malone, didn't discount any possibility
"Obviously, injuries he's had — some serious injuries over the past three, four years since I've been with the organization — have limited the number of games that he could play," Yzerman said. "It does take its toll on a player. We're taking everything into consideration for the offseason in improving our team, and we're looking at all different (options), whether it be the draft, free agency, trades, buyouts. We'll take it all into consideration."
In the collective bargaining agreement reached last year, each team received two compliance buyouts that have to be used before the 2014-15 season begins.
There are several reasons the Lightning could consider buying out the final year of Malone's contract.
A buyout would save it a $4.5 million salary cap hit by spreading two-thirds of his $2.5 million salary ($1.67 million) evenly over two years.
Malone also has struggled on the ice. Injuries and inconsistency have hurt him throughout the first six seasons of his seven-year, $31.5 million deal. This season was a disappointment for Malone, who started on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis but ended up on the fourth line and occasionally was a healthy scratch.
Malone fractured his right ankle in November blocking a shot and missed 16 games. When he returned, he said "nothing seemed to really click." Malone didn't score in 17 games in a row before being a healthy scratch in four in a row.
A three-time 20-goal scorer with the Lightning, Malone's five goals and 15 points in 57 games were his fewest in a season in which he played at least 50 games. The past two seasons, Malone has appeared in a combined 81 games.
A well-liked teammate, Malone took accountability, saying last season he needed to play better and earn the coaches' confidence. Malone kept his spirits up, with coach Jon Cooper calling him a "phenomenal guy."
"When you're in the (locker) room, our bad days aren't that bad when you look at the big picture," Malone said in mid March. "It could be a lot worse."
And there are Malone's legal issues. He faces charges of cocaine possession and driving under the influence stemming from an April 12 arrest in Tampa. He has pleaded not guilty. An arraignment is scheduled for Monday.
That Malone was evaluated in the wake of the arrest in the league's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program run jointly by the league and the Players Association might not matter in a buyout decision. The collective bargaining agreement doesn't specifically address the issue, but it's believed a player in the program can be bought out because his absence from the team is not hockey related. The union declined to comment.
The Lightning needs size and physicality, which Malone provides at 6 feet 4, 224 pounds, but he found it more difficult this season to keep up with a team that got substantially younger and faster. Tampa Bay has a number of prospects knocking at the door for an NHL opportunity, and Malone could soon be the odd man out.