By Bill Hoppe
On the left wing, there’s the fearless Nathan Gerbe, a 5-foot-5 fireball on skates. No opponent is too big for the 24-year-old, who regularly chirps at and plows into players a foot taller than him.
On the right wing, there’s Patrick Kaleta, one of the NHL’s supreme agitators. The Angola native, thanks to his penchant for trash-talking and a bulldozer mentality, has become universally loathed around the league.
“The joke is I play with two of the top five most hated guys in the league on that line,” Sabres center Paul Gaustad said earlier this week.
Of course, Gaustad, another tough customer, is no angel.
“You can throw him out there in the mix, too,” Kaleta said. “I think that’s a good thing when guys don’t like playing against you. It’s going to help our line.”
Gerbe joked he hears how detested he and Kaleta are “probably every day.”
“I disagree,” he said. “Pat and I just try to play our games. I know we get under people’s skin the way we play. That’s just something we do. I guess Paul should be lucky to be playing with us.”
The kidding illustrates how close the trio has become on and off the ice. The players showcased immediate chemistry when Sabres coach Lindy Ruff put them together late last season. So far, Ruff, who’s known for breaking up lines quickly, has kept it intact through training camp.
Right now, at least on paper, it’s probably the third combination, a mix of strong grit and some offense.
Why did Ruff put them together?
“A little bit of trying to balance a little bit of offense on every line where I felt Nathan could supply some,” Ruff explained. “In Patty’s case, good speed. I think he has good skill. … Even early on when they weren’t scoring there in a few games, they had some good chemistry. So we went back to it later on. It worked.
“A tough line, in a checking sense, to play against because they hound the puck on the ice, they’ve got a good opportunity usually on the offensive side to produce for us.”
They proved that last week. In the preseason opener, the line wowed, accounting for all three goals and eight points in the Sabres’ win over Carolina.
“We’re developing chemistry, knowing where each other are on the ice,” Gaustad said.
That’s not a coincidence, either. Gaustad, Gerbe and Kaleta spent the summer working out together in Buffalo. Only Kaleta usually stays in Western New York year-round.
“It just shows how committed they are,” Kaleta said.
Ruff said he didn’t tell the players in April he’d keep them together this camp. Still, they skated, worked out, watched video and went running together.
“It all started with playing a bit last year, having confidence in each other, and we carried on throughout the summer and worked as hard and as focused as I’ve ever been, personally,” Kaleta said. “As a line, we tried to work on things and tried to come together more and be more of brother mentality.”
Clearly, Gerbe’s the line’s top offensive threat. In his first full season last year, he struggled early, not scoring until his 21st game. He finished with 16 goals in 64 games, however. Twenty-five or 30 tallies aren’t out of reach for Gerbe, an elite scorer in the NCAA and AHL.
“I’m an energy guy, and I got to get open, I got to shoot the puck,” Gerbe said. “I know Paul and Pat are big bodies, they get to the net well, they open up space but they also make some really good plays out there.”
Injuries, meanwhile, have ravaged Kaleta, never allowing him to play more than 55 games. Incredibly, sniper Thomas Vanek leveled Kaleta high during Wednesday night’s scrimmage. After several moments on the ice, a dazed Kaleta was helped off. Ruff said he was shaken but OK.
On Tuesday, Kaleta said he felt rejuvenated has started treating hockey more seriously. His win-at-all costs mentality won’t change, though.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t (serious) before, but I took a step, if not a couple steps forward (in the summer),” said Kaleta, who’s been working with a sports psychologist. “I’m hoping you guys will see a guy that’s on the edge all the time but can show offensive ability and can be an all-around player.”
He scored 10 times, including four game winners, two years ago. If he can play a full season, 15 or so goals seem reasonable.
“His skill’s underrated,” Gaustad said. “He’s a highly skilled guy, more than what people give him credit for.”
Then there’s Gaustad, who’s entering the final season of a four-year, $9.2 million deal. The 29-year-old might be the line’s glue. At his best, he does a little bit of everything well.
“We can play physical, we can play shutdown stuff,” Kaleta said. “I have tremendous confidence in the guy next to me. I know those two are going to work as hard as they possibly can. If we do that, I think we can be successful.”
Notes: Winger Ales Kotalik, who was assigned to Rochester on Monday, still hasn’t reported, according to the Rochester Democrat Chronicle. The 32-year-old’s deciding his next career move … Ruff said he won’t name a captain before the team leaves for its season-opening European trip Saturday. “You don’t have an opportunity very often to name a captain in Europe,” he joked … Center Derek Roy (shoulder) scrimmaged with his teammates before about 1,000 fans. Ruff called him “close.” Meanwhile, center Jochen Hecht (possible head injury) saw another doctor and later skated on his own. “Hopefully, he’ll start progressing here in the next few days,” Ruff said.