BRIGHTON – Inevitably, early during Patrick Kaleta’s stint with the Rochester Americans, an opponent will try taking the hard-hitting, ultra-aggressive winger over the edge.
As a former NHL regular in the AHL, a league full of yahoos, Kaleta will have a target on his back as he works at redesigning his game and earning another roster spot with the Buffalo Sabres. General manager Darcy Regier gave Kaleta a strong message after waiving him Saturday: you’re not coming back until you change and start obeying the NHL’s new rules.
The hockey world will be watching to see if Kaleta, who’s been suspended four times in four seasons, including twice in his last 21 games, can transform himself and start showcasing a calmer style.
“I’m not going to be looking for big hits,” Kaleta said Tuesday inside Bill Gray’s Iceplex following his first Amerks practice since 2008. “I’m not going to be going out there and fighting everyone every shift. I’m here to play hockey, to develop and be a positive to this team and, ultimately, the Buffalo Sabres.”
The Sabres haven’t closed the door on Kaleta, and the 27-year-old plans on using his first AHL assignment in nearly six years as a springboard back to the NHL.
“It’s about me improving and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Kaleta said. “I always try to do everything 110 percent. By no means am I going to come down here and just go through the motions and stuff. I’m going to give everything I got to this team, for these players.”
Still, Kaleta acknowledged the last few days have been difficult. Getting waived Saturday shocked him. The Angola native had always taken immense pride in representing his hometown club.
After his 10-game suspension for hitting Columbus’ Jack Johnson in the head Oct. 10 ended, Kaleta thought he would be returning to the lineup Saturday.
“I was pretty excited to get back in the lineup,” Kaleta said. “I knew I had to take it down a couple notches and stuff like that.”
But Kaleta must do that in the minors.
“I am blessed to be able to stay in the organization, have a chance to improve, which I know I can do and I know I will,” Kaleta said.
Kaleta said if a hit’s available, he wants to play physically and take the body. But he knows he must change as quickly as the NHL, which has been outlawing headshots.
“It’s taking out those 50-50 plays where half of you guys think it’s good, half of you guys think it’s bad,” Kaleta said.
Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy said Kaleta has already asked about getting extra on-ice work during the afternoon. A couple of former players Kaleta recently reached out to – he wouldn’t say whom – “responded with open arms,” he said.
In addition, Randy Cunneyworth, Kaleta’s coach during his first Rochester stint, will be working one-on-one with the agitator. The Sabres recently hired Cunneyworth for special assignments and pro scouting.
“I have a lot of energy, and I’m going to put a lot of energy into getting better,” Kaleta said. “I have no doubt in my mind with the people I’m surrounded with and with my mindset that I am going to get better.”
Cassidy wants to give him time to assimilate, so Kaleta, who was off the ice for a few days, won’t play tonight against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
The coach is confident Kaleta will hone his game and become a more effective NHL player.
“Having known Patrick for a long time, he has the ability to play,” said Cassidy, who coached Kaleta as a teenager in a Team USA tournament. “He’s got to get back to being a guy that can play with the puck, makes some plays, be a more five-on-five player.”
Of course, Kaleta has no guarantees. He must display progress to earn a recall.
“It could be a week, it could be a month, it could be the rest of the year – and I think that’s the way Patrick’s got to look at it, is he’s got to see it as an opportunity to be here, change the way he’s playing,” Cassidy said. “But there’s no timetable.”
Amerks captain Matt Ellis said he told Kaleta to, “Take a deep breath, go out there and play hockey. You got the opportunity now with no pressure on you to try to rebuild your game.”
Ellis, while noting the situations are a bit different, used Sabres forward Cody McCormick as an example for Kaleta.
The Sabres said they possessed too much grit and waived McCormick in February. McCormick, a third- or fourth-liner with the Sabres, seized his opportunity in Rochester, becoming a leader and playing in all situations. He reclaimed his NHL roster spot this season.
“I got a lot of people on my side,” Kaleta said. “If I give it all I got, there’s no reason I can’t go up.”
Notes: Sabres prospect Joel Armia, out since breaking his hand during training camp, has been assigned to the Amerks from Buffalo. Cassidy said the Finn hasn’t been fully cleared for contact yet. … Kaleta, No. 36 with the Sabres, will wear No. 27. Why? His favorite player, former Sabres captain Michael Peca, wore it. It’s also the date his grandmother died. … With Kaleta on the roster, the Amerks have seven healthy veterans, one more than the league limit. One will have to sit each game.