by Brian Wheeler
The element of surprise is one of the single greatest advantages in any battle. For Patrick Kaleta
, that advantage is already gone.
No one will be brave enough to turn their backs on the 20-year-old prospect when training camp opens prior to the 2006-07 season. Kaleta served notice last September that he is for real.
The six-foot-one, 180 pound right winger from Angola, N.Y. came through Buffalo's 2005-06 training camp like a hurricane, blowing apart everything he touched.
His approach - unmercilessly hitting anything in his path - grabbed the attention of the Sabres coaching staff and players alike.
In a few short weeks, Kaleta went from just another sixth-round pick who might have a chance to play in the AHL, to a bona fide commodity and physical threat.
"I grew up with the Sabres as my favorite team," said Kaleta. "My first camp I was a bit nervous, but realized that if I wanted to be their teammate in the future, I'm going to do what I do best … that unfortunately is hitting."
Now only one question remains: Can Kaleta recreate that same magic when people are expecting it?
"It gets more difficult every time you go out on the ice," he explained. "The guys are going to be that much better this season. But I'm going to go out there and play the same game I did last camp."
To his credit, Kaleta is doing everything in his power to assure that he can impress again.
Kaleta has been working out tirelessly at HSBC Arena five days a week with Strength and Conditioning coach Doug McKenney, who has the rookie focusing on increasing his strength and improving his puck-handling skills.
His focus has been to close any gaps in his game that might prove to be detrimental to his development as a professional.
"You watch some of the guys out there like (Daniel) Briere and (Tim) Connolly," said Kaleta," they can dangle around anyone they want to. I'm just trying to improve to a level where I can compete with those guys in that area."
Working with McKenney has been a tremendous help to the 20-year-old prospect's growth, but working out with Sabres regulars Derek Roy
, Adam Mair and Andrew Peters has provided something even more valuable: a feeling of acceptance by NHL caliber talent.
"The guys on the team are great," said Kaleta. "They take you under their wing and try to teach you and help improve your game."
Kaleta can give firsthand testimony to the chemistry around the locker room, which was such a large piece of Buffalo's success last season. As simply a prospect, he was welcomed to the team with open arms.
The experience has made Kaleta work even harder to become a part of that group.
"You can see it right away," said Kaleta of the team's cohesiveness. "When you come down here to the rink and skate with these guys, you can tell they are a close knit group that has a lot of fun."
Kaleta showed a huge improvement for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League during the 2005-06 season when he set career highs in assists (35), points (51) and plus/minus rating (+20) after appearing in 68 games.
The fourth-year vet of the "O" didn't slouch in the postseason either.
His 18 points (8+10) in 19 games were good for fourth on the team, while his 43 penalty minutes ranked second.
Since September, Kaleta has remembered the advice that one of the Sabres co-captains gave him following a few grumbles from players concerning his physical play.
"Danny Briere told me that the guys would respect me if I worked hard," recalled Kaleta. "He told me not to be afraid to go out there and play my game."
And that's exactly what Kaleta intends to do when training camp opens this fall.