LOS ANGELES — Where is the snow?
It has been almost a month since Ryan Malone's first Christmas in Tampa, and the Lightning left wing still marvels that he walked in shorts to the dock by his south West Shore home after years in his native Pittsburgh bundling against the cold.
"Where are the reindeer and Santa going to go?" Malone said he joked to himself.
Not that Malone minded. As he said about living in west-central Florida, "I keep saying it's like you're always on vacation."
Still, the moment underlined a season of change for Malone, one in which he went from the snuggly comfort of playing three seasons for his beloved Penguins to signing with Tampa Bay.
And one in which he scored three goals in his first 14 games but has since convinced coach Rick Tocchet, with nine goals and 20 points in his past 18, that he can be one of the league's elite power forwards.
"He can be an All-Star," Tocchet said Sunday. "His attitude should be, 'I have another level in me. What will it take to do it?' "
Malone, 29, who had career highs last season of 27 goals and 51 points, was the centerpiece of the Lightning's free-agent spending spree and signed a seven-year, $31.5-million deal.
"Hopefully, I don't have to experience it again," he said of the transition. "You go to a different team, you're so used to things being a certain way, it's tough at first to feel comfortable."
Add that Malone played in last season's Stanley Cup final, which shortened his down and conditioning times, played fewer minutes under former coach Barry Melrose and had an upper-body injury that kept him out of nine games, and you understand why Malone spun his wheels.
Now, he said, "I'm getting a routine going. The biggest thing is: Before, I was new to the area; there were so many new guys. It just took longer to jell than everyone thought."
It is not pretty when Malone is on his game, but it is effective and is punctuated with a grizzly edge and willingness to fight.
In Friday's 4-3 victory over the Ducks, the 6-foot-4, 218-pounder scored Tampa Bay's final two goals, both from in front of the net, once carrying the puck to the goal mouth before lowering his shoulder to take on a defender and push the puck past the goaltender.
"He has such a physical presence in front of the net," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "The puck seems to gravitate toward him, and he gets himself in the right position. He creates room by being physical."
It is the type of goal of which the Lightning needs more.
And it is the type of play Tocchet said Malone should make regularly. It would mean "an extra five or six goals a year," the coach said, and a place among the league's top power forwards.
"He has to put in his mind-set he can be that type of All-Star player," Tocchet said. "He's the type of guy I'd like to see in practice really drive the tempo for himself and the team. I just think he has another level."
A comfort level.
NOTES: Defensemen Steve Eminger, Matt Smaby and Lukas Krajicek missed practice because they are "banged up," Tocchet said, and one will sit tonight against the Kings at the Staples Center. Vladimir Mihalik is expected to be called up from AHL Norfolk. … G Olie Kolzig (left arm) still isn't practicing.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.