Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Ryan Malone's Lightning situation murky

Ryan Malone's legal situation is crystal clear.

The Lightning left wing was arrested April 12 in Tampa and charged with cocaine possession (police say they found 1.3 grams in his back pocket) and DUI (police say he had Breathalyzer blood-alcohol readings of 0.112 and 0.116, well above the 0.08 at which someone legally is considered impaired in Florida). The drug charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail, the DUI charge six months.

Malone has pleaded not guilty, but given the circumstances, that seems a formality while his attorney tries to work out a deal with prosecutors. No trial date has been set.

What is less clear is what this all means for Malone's relationship with the team.

For now, at least, it seems the Lightning will make its determination based on whether Malone, a well-liked teammate, still can contribute on the ice. Legal problems or not, that is not a good equation for the player, who even before a terrible 2013-14 season was believed a possible buyout target.

That Malone is in the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program run jointly by the league and players association might not matter. Though the collective bargaining agreement does not specifically address the issue, it is believed the NHL's position is a player in the program can be bought out because his absence from the team is not hockey related.

The buyout period begins June 15 or 48 hours after the end of the Stanley Cup final, whichever is later, and ends June 30.

Tampa Bay also has one remaining compliance buyout; the first was used last summer on Vinny Lecavalier. So though the Lightning would be on the hook for two-thirds of the $2.5 million Malone is scheduled to make in the last year of his contract — that is, $1.67 million spread evenly over two seasons — his outsized $4.5 million salary cap hit would come off the books.

Given Malone's diminishing contributions, that is something the team might find attractive.

Tampa Bay also could consider terminating Malone's contract under a "behavior" clause that is part of the collective bargaining agreement, though that likely would be appealed by the players association.

Malone, 34, had a difficult season. Never the fleetest skater, he slowed further after returning from a fractured ankle. After starting the season on the first line with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, he ended it on the fourth and as a healthy scratch. In December, he lost his spot on the power play.

Though he has had three 20-goal seasons for the Lightning, Malone's five goals and 15 points in 57 games this season were his fewest in a season in which he played at least 50 games. In five previous seasons with the Lightning, the oft-injured Malone has never played more than 70 games. In the past two seasons combined, he played just 81.

That's not a lot of return on a seven-year, $31.5 million deal. With the overlay of Malone's legal problems, perhaps the team believes it is time to cut its losses.

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