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Axing Kaleta is wrong message

Let me get this straight. Four teenagers are allowed to learn on the fly in the NHL, but Patrick Kaleta, in his eighth season, is incapable of doing the same? In adhering to the practice of ignoring what the Sabres say and watching what they do, that was the message sent Saturday when they waived the feisty forward.

No problem here with Darcy Regier’s assessment that Kaleta needs to change his style. The NHL has lost patience for players like him. He has crossed the line too many times. If he needs a reminder, he can ask his accountant. His latest transgression cost him about $150,000, enough to bail out many a felon.

But let’s not take our eye off the big picture for the Sabres this season, which is dedicated to accelerating the development of their young players. For the most part, they have little business being in the NHL at this stage of their careers. The kiddie corps has been given a free pass, winning be damned.

The Sabres dropped another one Saturday, this time after giving up three goals to the Ducks in a sloppy second period. Anaheim, on the tail end of an eight-game roadie that started Oct. 22, split town with an easy 6-3 victory. The Sabres, winless at home, are headed for the West Coast this week.

A hideous season could get uglier.

Say what you will about Kaleta. He wouldn’t have made a difference Saturday, but there’s no discounting his effort. If the Sabres had more players with his motor, they would have been significantly better in recent years. He was a gamer on a team lacking them. He gave what he had. He did what he was told. He never whined.

His passion and work ethic, if nothing else, count for something. Kids can learn from watching veterans who bust their fannies and appreciate every shift in the NHL. Kaleta never quits. He’s a classic example of a player who is miserable to compete against and great to have on your team. And he’s a consummate teammate.

Unfortunately, his shenanigans overshadowed his ability. He can be effective without breaking the rules. His failure to prove it falls on him.

Four years ago, he scored 10 goals in 55 games. The problem is that he scored 10 goals in 153 games over the three-plus years that followed. He’s a good skater and terrific forechecker. He evolved into a good penalty killer and fearless shot blocker. Overall, he’s a bottom-six forward who earned his place in the NHL.

Keyword: earned.

That message has been lost. Too many players on the Sabres’ roster haven’t earned anything, which makes me wonder if they’ve learned anything. Regier has insisted that they’re getting better, and he’s probably right. Young players are bound to improve whether they’re in Buffalo or somewhere else.

The Sabres have several players, based on performance and NHL readiness, who should have packed their bags long before Kaleta did. He could adjust his style without going to the minors. But they’re allowed to stick around while he’s shipped out of town? What does that say to the kids, that poor play is acceptable because they’re young?

By their own admission, the Sabres have lacked effort. It’s one reason they’re getting bombed in the first period. Solid goaltending, absent Saturday, covered up for a mountain of mistakes. It provided a false sense of hope that the learning process can be accelerated. It’s equally possible their growth will be stunted.

We might not know for several years what they’re taking from this season. They’re adjusting to the speed of the game. They’re gaining an understanding of the importance of positioning in the NHL, particularly in the defensive zone. They’re getting a PhD in playing from behind. All are positives.

But they’re also getting an education in a toxic environment that’s not suitable for teenagers. Racy movies are rated R because, generally, kids under 17 aren’t mature enough to handle them. Teams typically avoid stocking their rosters with teenagers because, generally, they’re not mature enough to handle the demands of the NHL.

All they know is that they’re in the best league in the world, sleeping in five-star hotels, traveling by charter, collecting big paychecks and walking into a $10 million dressing room. Meanwhile, the losses are piling up. You never know how players will respond, but the last thing the Sabres need is for them to become numb to losing.

That was never an issue with Kaleta, which was one reason he fit when he first jumped to the NHL. He played for a good team that had players who matched his competitiveness. The Sabres weren’t driven by the joy of winning early in his career, so much as absolute hatred of losing. He personified the difference.

It will be interesting to see if another team claims him before noon today with the idea they can harness him. Lindy Ruff is one guy who may think he can get the most out him. Montreal is looking for bang. If all 30 teams pass, I’ll wonder if the NHL extended its long arm of justice and made sure he cleared waivers. We’ll see.

If he winds up in Rochester, it helps validate the Sabres’ decision to waive him. Still, Regier fooled nobody when he suggested his goal is preserving Kaleta’s career. If that was his top priority, he would sign him to a contract extension ASAP. There’s a greater chance the decision was based on convenience as much as anything.

Regier needed to make room on the roster for Corey Tropp. Waiving Kaleta created an opening and gave Regier an opportunity to show that he was tough on crime. The Sabres were ripped royally after two players were suspended in the first few weeks of the season. They were viewed as a bad organization spiraling out of control.

Now, it’s just bad.


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