And the crowd rose to their feet as Kaleta crushed the young defenseman against the boards...
Everyone reacts to being sent to the minor leagues differently. In the three seasons I've been covering the American Hockey League, I've seen players be angry, mopey, motivated and even relieved.
You'd think it would be harder for guys that have been in the NHL longer, but that's not always the case. Some prospects – especially those who have seen some success in The Show – let it smash their confidence into pieces. And some veterans legitimately look at it as an opportunity to work on their game. So a player's reaction to a send-down isn't always what you expect.
When the Buffalo Sabres waived veteran forward Patrick Kaleta to Rochester, it was pretty easy to figure he'd come to the Amerks with a chip on his shoulder – though he doesn't exactly see it that way.
“My game will be different here,” Kaleta said after the Amerks' 3-2 overtime loss. “I'm skating with the puck, working with my hands and trying to make plays. I'm not gravitating toward fighting, but if I need to I need to. I'm here to do my best to help the team on the ice, off the ice, with leadership, whatever I can do to help this team and to prove myself along the way, I'm here to do it.”
In his first AHL game since 2008, Kaleta didn't act mopey, motivated, relieved or anything unique. He was just Patrick Kaleta, playing the same way he's played in Buffalo over the past five seasons.
There he killed penalties, blocked shots, hit, fought and bled for the Sabres. There he earned the three scars on his nose and the ones above his left eye. There he pushed the limits of the NHL's player safety code on a nightly basis and earned a reputation as one of the league's best pests and most hated opponents.
But it was bound to reach a breaking point. The final straw was an elbow to the head of Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson. There were many of the like before, but this was a we've-had-enough-of-this hit. He came from across the ice, away from the play, with his elbow raised, with apparent intent to hurt Johnson. And less than a year removed from a hit that could have seriously hurt Rangers forward Brad Richards, it was too much.
The league laid into him with a 10 game suspension. When his suspension was over, the Sabres waived him. Maybe they pressured the Sabres to send a message. Darcy Regier also tried to trade him but couldn't find a suitor – which sounds like more than a message and more than a stint to change.
So here he is. Wearing a red Rochester Americans sweater with the No. 27.
He's faster than almost everyone. His vision and anticipation is far advanced. More or less, if you didn't know he'd been in the NHL, you could probably guess without a discerning eye.
He peeled off a hit on his second shift, raising a murmur from the crowd that had cheered him during introductions. For him it must have felt like a 3-point shooter passing up a wide open look.
But as the game went along, Kaleta got back into playing as physical as you would expect on an average night in Buffalo. He sent Binghamton forward David Dziurzynski flying to the ice on a clean hit following a pass. Once, he skated all the way across the ice to slam into another Senators player. At the end of the second period, Kaleta tried to start a fight with under-sized forward Mike Hoffman, who was disinterested.
In the third period, he was boarded by Senators forward Cody Cowick. Freddie Roy stepped to his defense, fighting the much larger Cowick. Again, a lot light how things went on a night-to-night basis in Buffalo – but in The Show, the ref probably calls the boarding penalty.
Kaleta called Roy the “glue” on the team and said he's already begun working with him on penalty killing skills.
Showing professionalism and an interest in helping young players goes a long way in the locker room and maybe earns points with the organization. But how is anyone – including him – supposed to have any idea exactly how he can earn his way back to the NHL?
Do they want him to play like Brian Flynn, skating around causing problems with his stick? Do they want hits, but clean hits? Do they want goals? Assists? Seriously, nobody knows or will say. Maybe because it doesn't exist.
Head coach Chadd Cassidy said as Kaleta gets more ice time with the Amerks, he'll be expected to contribute more offensively. So there's that. The rest isn't too clear.
Early in the third period, with the score tied at two, Kaleta played a key role in killing off a penalty. He calmly grabbed the puck, skated it to center ice and flipped it into the zone. Sounds about right.
Late in the third, the Amerks' crowd of over 7,000 rose to their feet as Kaleta crushed young Senators defenseman Cody Cici into the boards. As exciting as the hit was, you couldn't avoid asking, does a hit like that get him closer or farther away from returning to the NHL?
“My game is my game,” the veteran forward said, standing in the middle of the Amerks' locker room. “I learn. I change with the league. That's my goal and that's what I'm going to work on. Hitting is still part of the game, it's just turning it down a few notches. I think you saw it tonight.”
Kaleta sounded more convinced he'd be a part of this team all year than that he'd be right back in the NHL. And that might turn out just fine. Last season Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick were able to acclimate to the Amerks quickly and help them make the post-season. McCormick got a shot back in Buffalo the next year.
Maybe that's the best case scenario for Kaleta. Until then, he'll be an asset for the Amerks.