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.”