TAMPA — Though left wing Ryan Malone has traditionally been a slow starter, he has exploded in this season's first month, becoming an unsung hero for the Lightning.
Steven Stamkos gets a lot of the attention — deservedly so — but Malone has quietly racked up 12 goals, second on the team and including four winners, which is tied for the most in the NHL. Coach Rick Tocchet said Malone is working harder, has better practice habits and has answered his challenge to be more consistent every night.
What has been the difference?
To Malone's father, Greg, a Lightning scout and former NHL player, it has been "everything coming together."
Ryan, 29, is more comfortable in his second year with the Lightning, overcoming a tough transition after leaving his hometown Penguins, the club he broke into the NHL with and which, Greg said, "was close to his heart."
There's the extra motivation of making the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. And there's Ryan's dedication in the offseason, which included spending two weeks at Minnesota Hockey Camps, where he has played every summer except after Pittsburgh's 2008 Stanley Cup final run. Ryan said he "went back to the old drawing board."
"When you come to a new team, it always takes a little bit of time to get comfortable, get in a routine," said Ryan, who signed a seven-year deal worth up to $31.5 million in summer 2008. "This year, the house is ready, the furniture is in there, so you don't have to worry about all that stuff, so you just come in and worry about camp, which was nice. You just have one focus, to get off to a good start with the guys, and so far, we've done that."
Ryan, who has 17 points (including five assists) entering tonight's game in Phoenix, deflected credit to his teammates, saying he has benefited playing with players such as Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. But Ryan, a physical 6-foot-4, 224-pound forward, has earned praise with his gritty work around the goal. Last season he had 45 points (26 goals, 19 assists).
"He's got really good hands around the net, obviously a big body, and he goes to the scoring areas, not afraid to get his nose dirty," Stamkos said. "He's a big-time player and has played really well for us."
Greg Malone, who played for the Whalers and Penguins in a 704-game career, said the chance to make the Olympic team has given Ryan more drive, with the season's first half serving as a quasi-tryout.
"Obviously, everyone would love to play at the Olympics at one particular time in their life, and he sees this as an opportunity that may not come this way again," said Greg, whose son wears his jersey number (12) and bears his nickname ("Bugsy"). "He's on their radar screen, and I think that was extra motivation."
Ryan also credited the Minnesota hockey camp in Brainerd, started by 1980 U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks, as a huge part of his development. He returned this summer for two weeks, lifting weights at 7 a.m. before rigorous workouts.
"They say it separates the boys from men," Greg said. "And (the camp) always gave Ryan confidence."
Ryan's comfort level and confidence also come from his teammates, and he's growing into more of a leadership role. "He's not afraid to tell guys to 'smarten up,' 'do the right thing,' and we need that from him," Tocchet said. "We needed that little bite from him. And he's supplied it. He's having a great year for us."