One year before dawn broke on a new NHL and illuminated the lockout's blackened skies, before anyone fully understood the extent to which players like him should flourish, Dmitri Kalinin had the Buffalo Sabres enamored.
The young defenseman was exhibiting all the promise of a future star in 2003-04, and when the possibility arose he might skate with a team in mother Russia before anyone knew for sure the upcoming season would be wiped out by a labor dispute, the Sabres beat a deadline to keep him on retainer.
"Dmitri falls into the group of young defensemen that represent the future of the National Hockey League," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said in August 2004.
Kalinin was coming off a season that still stands as the best of his career. Despite a more offensively liberated post-lockout league, he has regressed statistically.
His ordinary play is one reason the Sabres went into the All-Star break exploring a move to bolster their blueline before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
For a stupendously potent team on pace to amass nearly 300 goals, Kalinin is on target to score five of them.
"I know it's never been enough," the soft-spoken Russian said. "You always have to prove to everybody you can play in this league. It's never been perfect. Nobody's perfect. I just work hard and try to prove [myself]. It's never enough. You can always be better. There's never a perfect game or a perfect shift. Every time you can do something better."
Kalinin was sensational in 2003-04. He led all Sabres defensemen in scoring with 10 goals and 24 assists, more points than winger Maxim Afinogenov. Kalinin had four winners, two on power plays, one short-handed. He was one of only five Sabres to score on both special teams units. He was one of two defensemen without a minus rating.
It marked another significant step in his development. The season before he had eight goals and 13 assists in 65 games for the lowest-scoring team in franchise history.
This season Kalinin, who has played all 49 games heading into this week's All-Star break, is on pace to finish with five goals and 22 assists for the NHL's highest-scoring club. He's averaging under 20 minutes a game, more than three minutes below what he averaged in 2003-04.
"I think he's been hot and cold," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think he's had real good stretches where he's played well. I think his recent games he's been into mishandling pucks and careless giveaways."
Kalinin, who signed a two-year contract in August, is making $1.75 million this season. That's $500,000 more than All-Star Brian Campbell and $150,000 more than Henrik Tallinder.
The 18th overall pick in the 1998 draft has been used on the power play recently. "It's great to play out there and feeling the trust of everybody on the team and the coaches," Kalinin said. But he's endured offensive struggles. He has one goal in his last 42 games, including a 34-game blight. Twice he has gone seven games without a point.
"As a coach you look in a lot of directions," Ruff said of dealing with Kalinin's ups and downs. "Some of it maybe is off-ice preparation. There's a lot that goes into that. There's the mental. There's the hour and a half before the game, getting ready to play. Sometimes that little lack of focus leads to, in Dmitri's case, a slow start in games.
"Maybe that's the area that needs the most improvement and it isn't to do with anything physical as it is to be ready mentally."
A Kalinin gaffe led to an embarrassing goal in Wednesday's victory over the Boston Bruins. Kalinin whiffed on a pass inside the Sabres' blue line, allowing Phil Kessel to skate in alone on Ryan Miller for a goal.
When the Montreal Canadiens scored with 2:53 left to edge the Sabres, 4-3, on Saturday night, Ruff was critical of the way Kalinin and partner Teppo Numminen handled the play.
Ruff said when it comes to Kalinin's lapses, what you see might be all you get.
"What happens maybe is sometimes you have to identify that maybe that's a little bit of what he is," Ruff said. "Maybe he won't be able to eliminate that one careless giveaway every game.
"I've been around a lot of good players. I can go back to [All-Star defenseman] Ed Jovanovski as a younger player, when I had him in Florida. The trademark was no matter how hard you worked at it, he was going to have one or two big giveaways a game, but what he brought to the game after that was what you really liked."
Kalinin was erratic for much of last season. He was limited to 55 games because of injuries, but had an 82-game pace of three goals and 24 assists for a team that scored 61 more goals than in his career campaign before the lockout.
As the season progressed, however, Kalinin's game got stronger. He began to play with more confidence, took chances that paid off and became a force heading into the playoffs. He broke his foot in the second round against the Ottawa Senators.
Ruff expressed optimism Kalinin would round into form similarly this season.
"I think he proved it last year in the playoffs," Ruff said. "When we really needed him, his focus and preparation and everything else was as good as any player on the ice."