Brick Breaker

Before I actually watched soccer, I played Lego soccer. More specifically, I played Lego everything.

The equipment was not nearly as expensive as that Amazon link would have you believe. That’s mint in box from 2006, people. Scarcity creates demand. Mind you, that’s a newer version of the stadium I played with. I wasn’t asking for many Danish colored blocks for Christmas when I was in college.

I had a lot of Legos growing up. I loved playing with them. Making houses, towns and projects dominated much of my time growing up. I even built a number of additions to the Lego soccer stadium that, in my humble architectural opinion, were far superior to the stock grandstand for sale at your local K-Mart.

I should have gone to school to be an architect or civil engineer. I remember scoring pretty well on some tests in school that suggested just that — the ASVAB or some such testing acronym. Instead, someone told me to “Do what you want” with my career ambition and I chucked it down the broken basement steps into the damp, sad world of writing, where I lay to this day.

Pat Kaleta and I have two things in common. The first being that we’re both from “Buffalo” in the relative sense. Meaning Angola is about as far away from Buffalo as Niagara Falls is, even if you’re taking Route 5 to Lake Erie’s southern shores.

The other common characteristic is our love of Legos. I revealed this trait in the above, and Kaleta made mention of it after signing a 3-year, $ 3.75
million contract this week. He’s confessed his love for rectangular bricks in the past, as well as his desire to score 15-20 goals last season.

Legos have had to change, for better or for worse. Gone are the days where they were presented as equal opportunity construction equipment. The Lego brand is now made with cartoons and movie tie ins like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, with girls sequestered to their own brand of pink brickwork. The patterns and gridwork remain the same, but the product clearly has changed.

Kaleta may have his own Taj Mahal made of Legos, but he is far from a modern marvel on the ice. His prediction of 15-20 goals last season was well short of his actual output, as it has been his entire career. What he was flush with last season were penalties, injuries and suspensions. Looking at the numbers, it was another season of sameness from Kaleta.

The Sabres, then, signed him to a long-term deal. Why? Considering this is far from a value signing, and the Sabres are no longer listing value as a top priority, there must be reasons for a long-term deal.

Darcy Regier says that Kaleta has changed. Back to Bill Hoppe’s story:

“The growth in his game, growth in him as a person, his professionalism, how he approaches the game, the recognition that he had to change his game,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said in explaining the length of the deal Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center. “ … I think he made big strides and adjustment to that last year. I think he’s made big strides in things like equipment, making sure he protects himself.

“I think at times he was probably guilty of being reckless, not for personal gain, usually for team gain, taking his hands in front of shots, stuff like that. He’s learning how to adapt to the rules, how to become more valuable for the team. He’s a very good penalty killer. He’s a fearless player. He’s a tough player to play against, and I think you’ll really see his game grow over the next few years.”

In other words, he’s going to get better. This deal is an investment in the future. It’s a nice concept, if he actually does get better. It’s easier said than done, though. Since Kaleta came into the league in 2006, we’ve talked about how his game needs to change for him to remain a valuable piece to the puzzle.

For Sabres fans, Kaleta’s story has never been about the player he is. While fans of other teams despise him and players routinely vote him to the league’s most hated list, the Kaleta we saw on the ice was never supposed to last.

The sense was that Kaleta could become something different. Something more. Over the last four years fans have been disappointed by this evolution for sure. I know my perception of Kaleta hasn’t changed much, and injuries have made me doubt he can be a valuable piece to any team in Buffalo.

Darcy Regier’s actions this week, and the words that followed, indicate otherwise. Kaleta has some utility for the Sabres. Giving him a three-year deal seems to suggest he’s yet to reach his ceiling as a player in this organization. With Steve Ott or not, Kaleta’s game can make a difference for this team.

The “maturity” that Regier suggests Kaleta is gaining is not the sort of aging that kills childlike wonder and a fascination with bricks made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. This is about playing hockey, smart hockey, and producing real, tangible results.

Not just in penalties drawn or eyebrows raised. Goals, assists and games played. Kaleta needs to be a real, working part on this team in the coming years, and he’s been given an opportunity to do so by a team that no longer needs to covet pieces parts long past their prime.

Pat Kaleta has to deliver this season. He doesn’t have to follow the manual, but he does have to come up with something different when the bricks finally come back out.