Dmitri Kalinin had just officially agreed to sign the contract that would end his first foray into National Hockey League free agency and officially commence the next phase of his playing career with the New York Rangers when his cell phone suddenly began to ring.
|Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin said in terms of his enthusiasm, joining the Rangers feels like being a rookie all over again. |
"Chris Drury called me two seconds after I had just signed with the Rangers," laughs Kalinin, recalling that July afternoon. "I don’t know how he found out! He called me before anyone else, even my family, had called me."
And what message did Kalinin’s former Buffalo Sabres -- and now current Rangers teammate -- have for the new Blueshirt defenseman?
"He welcomed me to the team and told me all of this great stuff about the Rangers," said Kalinin. "It’s definitely exciting to be a Ranger!"
With that special personal greeting from Drury, and several weeks of unrestricted free agency, behind him, the 28 year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, set about to prepare for the upcoming 2008-09 season, his first with an NHL team other than the Sabres, who drafted him 18th overall in the first round of the 1998 entry draft.
"It’s definitely exciting to be starting over, and to prove to everyone in this organization and to the new fans that I can play on this team," said Kalinin. "It’s a new page in the book, and I am ready to get going."
The 6-foot-3, 206 pound defenseman, who goes by the nickname of "Tree", made his NHL debut with the Sabres during his first full professional season in 1999-00, playing in four games. He also starred at the minor-league level that season with Rochester, where he was selected to the AHL All-Rookie team as a smooth-skating 19-year-old.
The following season, Kalinin cracked the Buffalo lineup right out of training camp and posted 4-18-22 scoring totals in 79 games played. He finished 12th among all NHL rookies in assists and 19th in points, and was named as Buffalo’s outstanding rookie player.
All told, Kalinin played in 466 regular season games with Buffalo, posting 34 goals, 111 assists, 145 points, and a plus-11 rating over seven seasons.
Last year, Kalinin was slowed by a sprained right knee, an injury that he suffered during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes in mid-October. Though now fully recovered from the injury, Kalinin was limited to just 46 games in 2007-08 as the Sabres failed to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs one year after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Last year was not great for me health-wise," said Kalinin. "You can’t control getting an injury like that; but I have worked very hard in this off-season to do my best to avoid having this type of injury again in the future."
Despite not making the playoffs a year ago, Kalinin’s most memorable moments as a Sabre came during the postseason, where he was a consistent and solid force on Buffalo’s blueline. In fact, during the 2001 playoffs, Kalinin recorded an assist on the game-winning goal in his first NHL post-season contest. And his plus-5 rating over 13 games that spring was second best among all NHL rookies.
"Playoff time is a totally different experience than the regular season, and I am lucky to have gained some of that experience in Buffalo," notes Kalinin, who has appeared in 37 career post-season matches.
Kalinin played a big role on the Drury-led Sabres team that advanced to the conference finals in the spring of 2007, finishing 2-3-5 and a plus-9 in 16 games of action. His plus-minus rating was the second best on a team that came within three victories of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
"That was a great experience," says Kalinin, recalling the Sabres’ playoff run in 2007. "It is just too bad we could not go further"
Kalinin had a very strong series against the Rangers that spring in the tightly-contested Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the two teams. Not only did he record three points in that six-game series won by Buffalo, but Kalinin also assisted on Maxim Afinogenov’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 5 up in Buffalo, which gave the Sabres a 3-games-to-2 advantage at the time.
"I remember that those games were played at such a high intensity, and every game was a battle to the end," recalled Kalinin. "Those games were so exciting, neither team would give up."
Now Kalinin wants to share that playoff success with his new team.
"I am just hoping that this season I can help to bring that same feeling of winning in the playoffs to the Rangers," he said.
Kalinin knows first-hand that the Blueshirts already possess a player who can produce magical playoff moments on a consistent basis because he has seen the magic up close and personal.
"Chris Drury is an unbelievable player with great leadership, who just knows when and how to make the big play," Kalinin said of the veteran center, who, among other clutch playoff moments over his career, forced overtime in Game 5 of that Rangers-Sabres playoff series two years ago by scoring with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. "To play with him in Buffalo, and now here, that is just really good for me."
The decision to move from upstate New York down to Manhattan in order to play for the Rangers was not solely based on the opportunity to reunite with Drury, however. As a first-time free agent, Kalinin carefully weighed his options, which included returning to the Sabres, before settling on Broadway.
"The Rangers were the most interested in me right from the start of free agency," explains Kalinin. "Plus they were one of the better teams that were interested in me, and I wanted to play for a winning team. I am just really excited to play for the Rangers."
As Kalinin heads into his first training camp with the Blueshirts, he explains that his approach is the same now as a 28-year-old veteran as it was when he was a 19-year-old rookie.
"I need to be like a rookie where you don’t think about tomorrow, just about doing your best today, and do your absolute best to make the team," said Kalinin. "I will come to the rink, work hard, and try to make this team."