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Kaleta's game on display; NHL moves to curb concussion culture

No matter how many tweaks Patrick Kaleta makes to his game, it will never be considered a kinder, gentler brand of hockey. The Sabres forward is a gritty, in-your-face player who'd rather deliver a hit, talk trash or block a shot than earn a Lady Byng vote.

The NHL, though, has definitely moved toward kind and gentler. Backed by concussion studies and the discipline of Brendan Shanahan, the league is turning away from players who think over the edge is a good place to be. The agitators, rats and frequent rule-breakers need to adapt or get left behind.

Kaleta is trying his best to stay in the pack.

"The game has definitely changed," he said. "A lot of people have to change their game. I think my plan originally anyways was to be more effective than just a fourth-line banger. I'm happy for the opportunity. I always say I like the challenge and everything that goes with it.

"I feel like I have improved my game a tremendous amount this year, and I'm excited to get back at it and play better."

Kaleta had no choice but to place more emphasis on refining his game after an early season sitdown.

Shanahan, the NHL's senior vice president of player safety, suspended the Buffalo right winger for four games in November after a head-butt to Philadelphia's Jakub Voracek. When Kaleta returned, he was repeatedly nabbed for charging penalties, leading coach Lindy Ruff to say the forward was a "marked man."

"Kaleta just can't hit anybody anymore. He can't," Ruff said in January. "Every time he hits somebody it's a penalty."

Kaleta wound up leading the Sabres in penalty minutes with a career-high 116, but he took just nine minors in his final 26 games.

"The cool part about my game is that I needed to change," he said. "It's a hard thing to do but I think this year I realized how much I can improve. Things from penalty kill to just learning the game a little bit more, it's actually pretty fun when you know you can get better. I'm working at it to get better."

Skating and penalty killing are the two things that should help Kaleta stick around if others of his ilk fade away. He is one of the Sabres' fastest skaters, and he became one of their top-line penalty-killers. His average penalty-kill time of 1:55 per game was second among Buffalo forwards to captain Jason Pominville's 2:13.

However, the fearlessness he displays while diving in front of shots usually ends up hurting his body and playing time. He broke his thumb or hand for the third straight season. He played just 63 games, which was still a career high.

"It's not the most fun thing in the world having a cast pretty much every year, but it's the way I play and it's going to happen from time to time," Kaleta said. "My job is to minimize the opportunity of getting hurt and the chances of that. It's a work in progress."

The next progress will have to come in the form of a contract. His two-year deal that averaged $907,500 will expire this summer, making the 25-year-old a restricted free agent. He signed that contract in 2010 after putting up 10 goals and 15 points. He had four goals and nine points last season and five goals and 10 points this year.

The Angola native who grew up with Sabres jerseys on his wall has no desire to put another team's sweater on his back.

"I would not like it at all," Kaleta said. "Hopefully, everything will get worked out here, and that's what I'm focusing on, just being the best Buffalo Sabre that I can be. I'm looking forward to next year. I've improved my game this year, I think, by a lot. The good part is I can get better.

"I worked as hard as I possibly could the whole season. I gave my teammates and the coaching staff and fans everything I had every single night, and that's all you can ask for. At the end of the day when I look myself in the mirror, I can honestly say I gave everything I got."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com