By John Vogl
News Sports Reporter
Dan Bylsma is going to give Patrick Kaleta every chance to make the Sabres’ roster - unless the coach kills him first. Given Bylsma’s feelings, that’s entirely possible.
Kaleta has long inspired passionate responses in people. While the reception is usually positive in Buffalo, Kaleta’s reputation ranges from sewer rat to firing-squad candidate in other hockey cities.
During Bylsma’s nine seasons in the Penguins’ organization, he coached against Kaleta often. They’re on the same team now, but competitive feelings die hard.
“I have a hard time not wanting to kill him,” Bylsma said Saturday with a quick, pained laugh. “I’ve told him that. I let him know, ‘I’m trying to like you. I’m trying to put it behind me.’
“That’s jokingly aside, but he still does inspire that in me when I see him.”
Bylsma said he was joking, but emotions trump words when it comes to Kaleta. The coach gritted his teeth and vigorously shook his head while describing Kaleta’s hits during practice. Bylsma gripped the interview podium so hard in restrained annoyance that his water bottle shook.
“You look at him and he smiles, he’s got the shield,” said Bylsma, grimacing as he pictured the sneer and tinted mask that can’t hide the vicious intent in Kaleta’s eyes. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m supposed to like him. I’m supposed to like him.’ ”
Kaleta is aware a lot of people hold him in contempt and hope he fails in his quest for a 10th season in Buffalo.
“People doubt me all the time,” Kaleta said in First Niagara Center. “I’m pretty sure I get people doubting me every single day, every single hour. Just look at my Twitter feed.”
Indeed, the messages Kaleta receives in the social media world can be described, in family-friendly terms, as passionate. That’s OK. The 29-year-old is a passionate guy himself, something Kaleta is eager to show Buffalo’s new coaching staff as he skates through training camp.
“I’ve worked my whole summer for the opportunity to come here and make a team, and that’s my goal,” Kaleta said. “I was blessed for the chance and the opportunity. Now I’ve just got to make the most of the opportunity.”
Kaleta is confident he can secure a role in Buffalo. The unrestricted free agent turned down offers from other teams and elected to sign a minor-league contract with Rochester. The deal came with a professional tryout in Buffalo.
“My love for the Sabres and the organization and the city outweighed any other decisions,” Kaleta said. “When you have a Plan A, you’re focused and you’re determined to pursue that avenue. When you don’t focus on Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, you can really do what you need to do to get that Plan A.
“Buffalo, everyone knows, has been my Plan A since the day I was born.”
Unlike previous seasons, when it was a given the hard-charging right winger would don the Blue and Gold, Kaleta has an uphill battle. The Sabres are split into three groups, and he’s listed as the 11th of 11 forwards for Group B. The Sabres’ fourth line is penciled in as Nicolas Deslauriers, David Legwand and Marcus Foligno. Johan Larsson is in position to be the first extra.
Clearly, Kaleta has work to do. He’s doing his best to draw attention. He had a goal and assist during Friday’s scrimmage. He sent defenseman Brycen Martin careening into the boards after a dump-in Saturday, a hit that quickly drew an interference penalty.
“That’s not a real game out there, but in a sense it is, and a goal is a goal,” Kaleta said. “I’m happy to show that I’m able to contribute in that manner. Today I was able to show that I can still hit, and I think that just adds to everything.”
As much as the competitor in Bylsma would like to drop the gloves and rack up his 13th NHL fight, the coach in him sees a player doing everything possible to turn the tryout into a contract.
“I think Pat has a legitimate chance to make it,” Bylsma said. “We don’t have a lot of opportunity, but as a veteran guy and as a guy in Pat’s shoes, you have to come out and do exactly what he’s doing in camp, which is play his style, play his game. He’s done that right in our practices, he did that in our scrimmage.”
Kaleta’s going to continue to do it. The coming weeks will show if it’s enough.
“Anything and everything that needs to be done I’m more than willing to do,” Kaleta said. “Hopefully, when Oct. 6 or 7 rolls around, I’ll be here in whatever role that’s needed to help my team.”