The Sabres might be the most talked-about team in the NHL this season. That’s not a good thing. The discussions have been about illegal hits, suspensions, embarrassing play and potential firings, a dirty laundry list if there ever was one.
They needed to do something that could be construed as positive around the league. While it’s not popular in Buffalo, they found it with the waiving of Patrick Kaleta.
The right winger had completed his 10-game suspension and was eligible to return for Saturday’s 6-3 loss to Anaheim. Instead of putting him in the lineup, General Manager Darcy Regier put the Angola native on the waiver wire. Teams have until noon today to claim Kaleta – Regier put the odds at 50-50 – and the Sabres will send him to Rochester if he clears.
Regier said part of the reasoning for the move is to allow the oft-suspended forward to change his game. The GM conceded that the negative way the organization is being viewed around the league also was a factor.
“You don’t want to be under the thumb of the National Hockey League, and I think we are a little bit,” Regier said in First Niagara Center.
Kaleta, who was not in the arena during the morning skate, did not return a call seeking comment following the team’s noon announcement. He is in the second season of a three-year deal that pays $1.25 million per season regardless of where he plays.
The right winger earned a lengthy ban for his head shot on Columbus’ Jack Johnson on Oct. 10. It was his fourth suspension since 2009. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan took Kaleta to task for his repeat offender status during separate hearings.
When John Scott joined Kaleta on the suspended list for his head shot to Boston’s Loui Eriksson on Oct. 23, observers began deriding the Sabres as an organization out of control.
“When we looked at where the league is, especially in my case coming out of three hearings, two for Patrick and one for John Scott, and where Patrick’s game is currently, I think there is a significant amount of work that he will have to do to redesign his game in order to give him an opportunity to play,” Regier said.
“In fairness to him, he has made some changes. I think the changes that are going faster are at the league level. The league is really making a serious attempt to roll back. I think there’s an obvious focus on concussions and I think you’re going to see an additional focus on fighting.”
Regier said once the Sabres decided to send Kaleta to the Amerks, they tried to trade him. They didn’t find any takers for the eighth-year pro.
“Not being able to do that, waivers was the next thing,” Regier said. “One of the opportunities he gets is working on his game by creating some space beyond how they currently view him and how they will view him in the future. I have no question about his ability to do that. I really believe he can change. He’s 27 and he has the ability to do that and be an effective player in the NHL.”
Kaleta has played 306 games for the Sabres and recorded 506 penalty minutes, 27 goals and 51 points. While he’s gone 11 games without a goal and 51 without an assist, he’s in the good graces of most Buffalo fans because he has a hatred of losing and competes intensely for a team that too often goes through the motions.
“He’s a good, heart-and-soul player for us,” coach Ron Rolston said Saturday before the transaction, “good teammate, plays hard, competitive, has been good on the penalty kill.”
The Sabres made one other organizational announcement Saturday. They’ve rehired Randy Cunneyworth, who played for the Sabres and Amerks before an eight-year run as head coach in Rochester that ended in 2008.
“Randy’s doing pro scouting, special assignments,” Regier said. “I asked him in the event Patrick goes through if he would work with him one-on-one and help him develop a different game.”
While Cunneyworth has been hired as a scout, he comes in having coached in the NHL. He took over as interim bench boss for Montreal for 50 games in 2011-12, and he also was an assistant with Atlanta and the Canadiens.
With Rolston stumbling to a 2-13-1 record, Cunneyworth could be an option should the Sabres make a coaching move.
“Randy Cunneyworth’s job has nothing to do with Ron,” said Regier, who was asked if Rolston’s job is safe. “Yeah, we’re moving forward.”