RALEIGH, N.C. — Patrick Kaleta has taken pride in trying to rehabilitate his image. He’s played on the edge – and over it – throughout his career, but repeated penalties and a four-game suspension last season led him to re-evaluate his style. He focused on legal hits rather than borderline blows and said even referees noticed the difference.
A hit delivered over the weekend has put Kaleta back on the bad-boy list.
The NHL delivered a five-game suspension to the Buffalo Sabres right winger Monday, one day after he boarded Brad Richards of the New York Rangers. Kaleta had an afternoon phone hearing with Brendan Shanahan about the major penalty, and the league’s senior vice president of player safety issued the suspension a couple of hours later.
“In spite of the fact that Kaleta does not shove Richards with great force, he does so at an extremely dangerous distance from the boards,” Shanahan said in a video detailing the punishment. “Richards does not turn his back just prior or make any sudden movements that contribute to this illegal check. Kaleta is in full control of this play and has ample opportunity to make a better decision.”
Shanahan took into account Kaleta’s status as a repeat offender and the fact Richards returned to the game in determining the suspension length. The five-game benching will cost Kaleta $76,219.25, which goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
“I just play hard, and I was on the penalty kill trying to do my job,” Kaleta said in the team hotel prior to talking with Shanahan.
It’s the longest suspension of Kaleta’s career. He earned a four-game sitdown last season for head-butting Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek and was sentenced to two games in 2009 for boarding the Flyers’ Jared Ross.
Kaleta will miss tonight’s game against Carolina in PNC Center and road games against New Jersey on Thursday and Philadelphia on Sunday. He’ll also sit when the Rangers come to Buffalo next Tuesday and when Ottawa visits March 16.
“I have changed my game,” Kaleta said. “I know I have. I know players have seen that, and even referees have came up said, ‘Hey, I respect what you’ve done so far. As long as you keep showing that respect towards us, then we’ll respect you.’
“I loved hearing that and know that they’ve seen a change in my game, so I know I’ve changed my game.”
The Rangers disagreed, mocking Kaleta’s style of play and calling the hit “disgusting.” Richards sat out practice Monday with soreness, but coach John Tortorella told reporters in New York he expected the center to be fine.
Asked if he had a message to send to Richards, Kaleta paused for eight seconds before saying, “I’m fine for right now.”
Kaleta felt worse for taking a five-minute penalty that gave the Rangers a five-on-three power play. They scored twice during the first minute of Kaleta’s infraction to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. New York beat the Sabres, 3-2, in a shootout.
“I’m just sorry for the position I put the team in trying to kill that penalty,” Kaleta said. “I feel for that, for putting the penalty killers out there and them getting the two goals. It makes me feel like a bag of garbage after seeing that.”
The Sabres will not make a roster move due to Kaleta’s suspension. Left wing Thomas Vanek is expected to return for tonight’s game after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury, and Buffalo also has enforcer John Scott available to dress.
The biggest hole to fill will be on the penalty kill. Kaleta is tied with captain Jason Pominville for the lead among forwards with 2:10 of short-handed ice time per game.
“Obviously, we’ve had some adversity already with Van being out a couple games and other guys stepping into roles,” interim coach Ron Rolston said. “We have players that will go in, and the opportunity will be there for them to help our team be successful. We’ll deal with whatever we have.”