The Sabres are a team in transition. One of the most important aspects of the 2007-08 season was the team’s effort to find its identity after parting ways with several important veterans a year after their President’s Cup campaign. The team has several forwards who are either in the early years of their prime (Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville) or poised to come of age in a big way next season (Drew Stafford, RFA’s Steve Bernier and Paul Gaustad). For a team that has premier NHL talent at forward and seems comfortable in goal, they needed toughness and solid defensive play from their young call-ups, and got some help in those departments from Patrick Kaleta, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Weber, and Andrej Sekera.
In a city like Buffalo, the fact that Kaleta is a local product might be equally important to his contributions on the ice. Kaleta is from the nearby lakeshore town Angola, and reportedly grew up admiring former Sabre Matthew Barnaby, one of the most popular pests of his era. The fact that Kaleta wears Barnaby’s #36 and emulates his self-sacrificial playing style is not lost on observers. Kaleta posted just 41 penalty minutes in 40 games.
While Kaleta was a healthy scratch early in the season, he made it difficult for coach Lindy Ruff to keep him out of the lineup by drawing penalties and providing a needed spark for a streaky team. Although he only contributed five points in 40 games and averaged just 6:19 in ice time, he showed glimpses of respectable skill, and has room to develop at 21 years old.
Left winger MacArthur did not look out of place in the NHL this past season, but wasn’t able to distinguish himself enough to stick in the league. He was juggled between Buffalo and Rochester in the waning months of 2007, and spent the longest duration of time with the parent club from Jan. 5 to Mar. 6. In his 37 games with the Sabres, he registered eight goals and seven assists, including a game winner against Boston and three multi-point games. It was the most among the six rookie skaters for the Sabres. MacArthur is not an overly physical player, but he did show the ability to lay a solid check.
The Sabres are a team with elite young offensive talent, complimented by players like Kaleta and Andrew Peters who have clearly defined roles as agitators. Using that spectrum, MacArthur is caught somewhere in between. He averaged nearly a point per game in his previous two seasons with the AHL Rochester Americans, but it is unclear whether he will be able to either become a dependable offensive threat in the NHL, or carve out another niche as a gritty third or fourth-line winger.
Defensemen Mike Weber and Andrej Sekera are linked in the minds of many. They are comparable in terms of age and size (Weber is 20 at 6’2 199 lbs., Sekera is 21 at 6’0 191 lbs.), both were called up for good toward the end of the season, and both served as bright spots through the disappointing months of March and April. Sekera registered eight points in 37 games, while Weber added three assists in 16 games. Outside of statistics, both defensemen brought good size, consistently smart play, and a degree of toughness to a team that was desperate for stability at the position. Weber distinguished himself by posting a +12, the best plus/minus among rookies. Based on their contributions, coach Lindy Ruff uncharacteristically revealed that both players will have a spot with the Sabres next season.
The Sabres only had four rookies that played significant minutes. For a team that has had a glut of top-tier forwards coming through the pipeline in recent years, a player will likely need to find a distinct role to earn ice time. Kaleta seems to have done that with his high-effort style, while MacArthur’s future in Buffalo is more uncertain.
The Sabres are in need of quality NHL defensemen, especially with the likely departure of Dmitri Kalinin in the offseason. Weber and Sekera are firmly entrenched in Buffalo, and will have the opportunity to play important roles. For a team that searched for its identity all season, the promising young blueliners may be a step toward the smart, tough-minded team the Sabres want to be.