By Bill Hoppe
Go ahead. Crunch the numbers, start crossing off names. Try to pare more than $3.5 million from the Buffalo Sabres roster. Inevitably, if you attempt to get the free-spending team underneath the salary cap, your pen will keep coming back to one name first.
Winger Ales Kotalik and his $3 million salary.
To most Kotalik’s return to Buffalo, while a nice story, will be fleeting. They say in a couple of weeks the Czech, a top Sabres goal scorer from 2001-09, will be become a cap casualty, banished to Rochester.
Don’t tell that to Kotalik, though. The 32-year-old feels home again. He said it’s like he never left. Three months ago, he thought his NHL career was over. Now, he’s living the ultimate dream again.
When the Sabres open the regular season against Anaheim on Oct. 7 in Finland, Kotalik fully expects to be playing his 543rd NHL contest.
“For me, there is no other option than to be on this team,” Kotalik said Thursday following a training camp session inside the First Niagara Center.
Kotalik sat the Sabres’ first two preseason games, so he should play tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Through almost a week of camp, Kotalik has resembled the guy who averaged 20 goals and 41 points in his five full seasons in Buffalo, coach Lindy Ruff.
“Al looks like the old Al we saw before he left,” Ruff said.
But Kotalik’s a different man today. He’s carrying a heavy heart, having lost three friends from home — Jan Marek, Karel Rachunek and Josef Vasicek — in the Russian plane crash that killed every member of the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl earlier this month.
In the Czech Republic, “time stopped the week it happened. Nobody was able to do anything else or think about anything else,” Kotalik said.
“It puts life in a little different view, different perspective,” he said. “Sometimes those things you call tragedies are not really tragedies. You got to enjoy the time you’re here. I guess we never know what could happen.”
The Sabres don’t have many open jobs. Kotalik’s competing for possibly one final forward spot, but he’s welcoming the stiff challenge before him.
“I want to have fun and enjoy things,” Kotalik said. “I’m just happy being around the people I like and I know. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Kotalik has always been an interesting player to watch. He still possesses one of the league’s hardest, most fluid shots, something he’s been utilizing to score in practices and scrimmages.
In recent seasons, however, that lethal shot hasn’t helped Kotalik, whose career fell apart when the Sabres dealt him to Edmonton at the 2009 trade deadline. He has only 22 goals since he departed.
“It’s never been the same since I left the Sabres,” Kotalik said.
Kotalik played 19 games with the Oilers, and then signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Rangers. Kotalik lasted only 45 contests in New York, accumulating a wretched minus-18 rating.
He appeared finished shortly after the Rangers dealt him to Calgary. He injured his knee late in camp last season, missed about two months and was eventually sent to the AHL in the winter.
The deadline had passed for Kotalik to go play in Europe, so he made the most of his first trip to the minors since 2002 and eventually got back to the Flames. Still, he thought he’d be playing this season in the Czech Republic.
“I thought that the Flames were going to buy me out, I would be a free agent and I would decide about my future,” Kotalik said.
Then, in June, when the Sabres were negotiating to acquire defenseman Robyn Regehr, Kotalik’s agent told him he might be involved the trade. Kotalik was stunned.
“The trade back here came out of nowhere,” Kotalik said. “I was really excited when I heard the news. Right now, for me, I came in here to prove that I can still be a good player.”
The Sabres’ familiarity with Kotalik will certainly help him. General manager Darcy Regier drafted him 164th overall in 1998. Ruff was his only Sabres coach.
“They gave me a chance to become an NHL player,” Kotalik said. “I will never forget that. They built me. They thought I would be helpful to the team.”
Kotalik could be. He’s a shootout ace (22 goals, 11 game-deciding, third all-time) and a power-play stud (46 goals, 113 points).
His history makes him an intriguing roster candidate.
“Now it’s up to me to prove it to everybody who had doubts about me over the years,” Kotalik said. “It wasn’t easy. It was a tough two years for me. I’m taking it like an opportunity to show I can still be a good player in this league.”