By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Three years for a rugged, injury-prone winger who’s averaged only 55 games during his four full NHL seasons. Why did the Sabres give Patrick Kaleta, a 26-year-old short on durability, such a long contract?
The team sees growth and maturity seeping into Kaleta’s game. He’s started reigning in the ultra-aggressive, often reckless style he showcased for years.
The Angola native played a career-high 63 contests last season, eight more than his previous best. He earned regular action as a penalty killer, bumping up his minutes to nearly 20 some nights as he morphed into a strong checker.
“The growth in his game, growth in him as a person, his professionalism, how he approaches the game, the recognition that he had to change his game,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said in explaining the length of the deal Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center. “ … I think he made big strides and adjustment to that last year. I think he’s made big strides in things like equipment, making sure he protects himself.
“I think at times he was probably guilty of being reckless, not for personal gain, usually for team gain, taking his hands in front of shots, stuff like that. He’s learning how to adapt to the rules, how to become more valuable for the team. He’s a very good penalty killer. He’s a fearless player. He’s a tough player to play against, and I think you’ll really see his game grow over the next few years.”
Running an opponent through the boards is no longer Kaleta’s first option. Neither is blocking shots with his hand, a method that’s bitten him. He knew his NHL life would be short if he didn’t change his ways.
“Maybe injuries have happened, and maybe I haven’t had the best choices in the world in me getting hurt,” Kaleta said. “I’m working on that, and I’m trying to make myself better and putting in my head it’s not always the right decision to throw your hand in front of a shot. That’s a learning process, and I’m still working at it.”
Don’t think Kaleta will lose all his aggressiveness, though.
“I like doing it, I like blocking shots, which you might find kind of weird, but I also like doing Legos,” said Kaleta, who still puts the plastic play sets together. “It’s a matter of changing my game and becoming more of a rounded person, taking more responsibility, and if I improve on that, I hope to have some minutes (again) like that this year, too.”
Of course, Kaleta has more toughness around him now, too. He doesn’t have to be the guy. He believes the recent additions of gritty agitator Steve Ott and 6-foot-8 enforcer John Scott will make the Sabres “tougher to play against.”
Kaleta and Ott fought once, March 10, 2010 in Buffalo. That bout made for an interesting encounter at teammate Mike Weber’s wedding recently.
“I was a little bit nervous going to Mike Weber’s wedding at first,” Kaleta said. “I met him, we buried the hatchet right away. When you play against somebody, you always don’t like them right off the bat. You’re like, ‘Oh no, how is this going to go?’ Off the ice, you realize he’s a great guy and a good teammate of mine.”
More than five years after Kaleta debuted for the Sabres, the novelty of playing for his hometown team hasn’t worn off. When word came the deal was ready Tuesday, he experienced “probably the best feeling in the world.”
“I started here wanting to play for the Sabres,” Kaleta said. “I play for the Sabres. Now I want to win the Stanley Cup. I’m going to do everything in my power to get there.”
With Kaleta inked, the Sabres’ only remaining notable restricted free agent is center Tyler Ennis. Regier said he spoke with Ennis’ agent Tuesday and planned to speak with him again Wednesday.
“The positive is it’s moving in the right direction,” Regier said.
Shane Doan, the most coveted unrestricted free agent left, hasn’t met with the Sabres, Regier said. The veteran winger has been visiting clubs. Regier’s not sure if they’ll meet. The Sabres have expressed an interest.
Doan has been waiting to sign while the Phoenix Coyotes, the only franchise he’s ever played for, sort out their ownership mess.
Regier admires Doan’s loyalty.
“He’s spent his whole career with that organization,” he said, “and that’s meaningful. … But in the event he’s not going to stay there, we certainly would have an interest.”
According to eliteprospects.com, center Travis Turnbull, who spent three years in the Buffalo organization and played three NHL games last season, has signed with Dusseldorf of the DEL in Germany.
The Sabres didn’t offer Turnbull a contract.