Why do we love Pat Kaleta?
Does he have the hands to tip a point shot into the top corner of the net? Can he move post to post on a cross ice pass in the slot? Does he have an uncanny ability to be “there” at the right place at the right time?
No, he doesn’t have any of those qualities. In fact, Patrick Kaleta is a mediocre rookie that has decent speed, hands, and minimal scoring touch. If you opened a pack of hockey cards, he would be listed as a >$1 rookie, a throwaway card that is meaningless if you follow the other 29 teams.
So what is it? With all the other players on this team, all the talent and potential this team has; why would we pick a guy like Kaleta to almost unanimously support and root for? Why not fall in love with Connolly’s hands, Miller’s glove, or Vanek’s intuition?
Heart. No matter what faults you find in Kaleta’s game the one thing you know is that every game, every shift, he is going to skate his balls off and try to put someone through the boards and on to Washington Street. Pat is a rookie trying to stay in the NHL, a kid with the dream of playing for his hometown team every night, not just when some bruiser on the other team is playing.
He’s a role player that does his job and does it well. No stupid penalties, no late hits, nothing that is going to hurt this team. You see a kid like that get targeted in the Hurricanes game last week, and still he doesn’t hurt the team with retaliation. He took stitches for a team he barely has a permanent locker with. When it comes down to it, how can you not love this kid?
Guys like Kalata, Mair, Gaustad; they all have this intangible that we seem to identify as heart. It is a nonsensical statement, everyone has a heart and everyone plays with one. But there is no Teppo Numminen joke involved when I say that this team collectively has no heart, and this is something that will go down as the tragic flaw of this season.
It’s not just one player, it’s not just one game, it’s the sum of this season added up over six months and that total isn’t good enough. It’s Derek Roy taking a retaliation penalty in Ottawa with less then 5 minutes to play down by one. It’s the inability to come up with a key save in the shootout. It’s not covering Ruutu’s breakaway out of the penalty box. All these things involve awareness or intelligence or discipline, yes, but it all comes down to the focus and drive needed to maintain your game, something so many times this year has lapsed into neglect.
Most of all, the thing that bothers me the most is that there doesn’t seem to be an internal push to perform. Perhaps that element of motion left last July, maybe the coaching is stale, or maybe this core of players just isn’t “feeling it”; regardless of the reason this team just can’t get their collective s–t together. All season we’ve been hoping for them to put it together, to focus and do what they should and we expect. It’s not going to happen this year.
When it takes you getting booed off the ice down three to the 15th best team in the conference, there is something fundamentally wrong with your game. The resulting comeback only adds to the frustration, it is the proof that this team could be something good. Good, not great, but a group with some passion and willingness to live up to their ability. Forget the hype, forget the expectations, this team can’t even be consistently mediocre.
Last night was the last straw. The Sabres outshot the Leafs and lost 4-1. Good goaltending was a factor, but when a team seven points out of a playoff spot has more intensity without its leading scorer then the team just one win from the postseason picture, well, I’m calling it. There were chances to score that were missed, chances to make the plays that really matter and they hesitated.
There are seven games left in the regular season. Boston plays Montreal tonight. We play the Bruins twice. Philly ends the season with a home and home against Pittsburgh. Even with all this, there is still time. I keep saying over and over we cannot look at the season based on one game, but when things are looking up you can’t help but get a boost from it.
Wednesday and Thursday nights were highs. Last night was a low. It’s days like this you start to look back and see where things went wrong. Other times you look at those points and find growth, the opportunity to learn from mistakes and become better.
Today I look at Pat Kaleta and wish we had more like him, not in ability but in heart. Because when you look at Kaleta, doesn’t he remind you a bit of your own boyish dream to go stride for stride with the best players in the world? If you ever had that chance, wouldn’t you play every game as hard as you can and then some? I know that all I’d ever want is to be able to keep pace, just to prove that I can play with the same fire as those who are supposed to be there.
That’s all I’d want, and all we really need.