TAMPA — All things being equal, Ryan Malone shouldn't have been having as much fun as he seemed.
Standing in front of the net during a recent practice, the Lightning left wing fought for position while trying to deflect incoming pucks. It was a tough assignment, but every drill seemingly was met with a laugh or a smile.
That's notable for a player whose stock has fallen so precipitously, from a first-liner at the start of the season to a healthy scratch in four straight games.
"When you're in the (locker) room, our bad days aren't that bad when you look at the big picture," Malone said. "It could be a lot worse. So if you realize that, you know to come to the rink with a good attitude."
"Ryan Malone," coach Jon Cooper said, "is a phenomenal guy."
Clearly, this was not how the season was supposed to go for Malone, 34, a six-time 20-goal scorer who has five goals and 12 points in 46 games and is averaging just 12:22 of ice time.
But a slow start — one goal in his first 15 games — caused him to lose his spot on the first line with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, as well as his spot on the power play.
And after missing 16 games from Nov. 25-Dec. 29 with a fractured ankle caused by a blocked shot, Malone found it more difficult to keep up with a team that over the summer got substantially younger and faster.
A fourth-line player most recently, Malone, before he was scratched, did not have a point in a career-worst 12 straight games. He had not scored in 17 straight.
"I ended up coming back (from the injury) and nothing seemed to really click," he said. "It's hard to get into games, wasn't playing too much. It's a new thing for me, so there was an adjustment period from sitting on the bench to jumping up there and playing. It's just hard. No excuses. Obviously, I have to play better."
The thing is, Malone, 6 feet 4, 224 pounds, has a physical edge the Lightning could use. He just hasn't given Cooper enough reasons to get him in the lineup.
"I haven't really shown him enough to earn that trust or accountability or that confidence," Malone said.
"There's no question this has been really hard for him," Cooper said. "We've discussed it at length. He's going to get back in at some point. He's just got to bide his time."
How much time does Malone have? He has one more year on his seven-year, $31.5 million contract, and though his salary is an affordable $2.5 million, his cap hit is $4.5 million.
There was speculation last summer Malone would be bought out after he had injuries in 2012-13 and had just six goals and eight points in 24 games in the lockout-shortened season. Expect more rumors this summer.
For now, though, Malone is doing what comes naturally.
"You want to contribute to help the team win," he said. "So I'm going to go out there and work hard and show up for practice, work hard in the gym."
And who knows? Perhaps he gets into tonight's game with the Devils at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"When the opportunity comes," Malone said, "you've got to be ready."
Sunday With Stanley: A Hockey 101 seminar with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and former captain Dave Andreychuk will highlight Sunday's event at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, part of the team's celebration of the 10th anniversary of its 2004 Stanley Cup championship. Vinik's seminar is at 1 p.m. Other events, which begin at 11 a.m., include autograph opportunities with 2004 team members, picture opportunities with the Stanley Cup, open skating, clinics and a showing in the arena of the Cup-clinching Game 7 win over the Flames. Go to tampabaylightning.com for details.