BUFFALO, N.Y. - Here's to second chances. Ales Kotalik never envisioned he'd get one back in Buffalo with the Sabres.
"I would lie if I would say I wasn't surprised," Kotalik said this week as the Sabres opened training camp. "It's exciting, coming back here and seeing all of the guys and all of the people in this organization where I grew up and where I became an NHL player. I'm really happy and excited to be back."
After two-plus seasons of bouncing around the NHL—from Edmonton, to Calgary, to the Rangers and back to Calgary again—and a stint in the minors, the 32-year-old forward has rejoined the Sabres after being acquired as part of a trade that landed Buffalo hard-hitting defenceman Robyn Regehr in June.
"It kind of is like coming home," Kotalik said.
Now it's on him to make the most of his opportunity in a familiar setting.
"You've got to believe in yourself," he said. "And I'm taking it like an opportunity to show I can still be a good player in this league."
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is open to providing his former player a shot.
"We know what he brings, we know how we utilized him," Ruff said. "It's (a matter of) getting him on the ice and seeing where his game is at. (Whether) it's at the same level as before he left us, or if there has been a drop-off, it's all part of that evaluation process."
Kotalik did not dress for Buffalo's pre-season opener against Carolina on Monday. The Sabres are at Montreal on Wednesday.
Kotalik became dispensable in Buffalo after an up-and-down six-plus season stint that ended with him being traded to Edmonton in exchange for a second-round pick in March 2009.
Buffalo's sixth-round pick in the 1998 draft, Kotalik had 104 goals and 240 points in 426 games with the Sabres, but lacked consistency. He failed to live up to the promise he showed in 2005-06, when he had a career-best 25 goals and 62 points.
And his dropoff continued following his departure, leading to Kotalik reaching a crossroads of his career last season in Calgary.
After missing the start of the season with a knee injury, he then split time between the Flames and their American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C.
He scored just six points in 26 games with the Flames and added six goals and 18 points in 25 games in the minors. It appeared as if the Flames would simply cut him loose and let him sign somewhere else.
"The team wasn't going really well, and I wasn't really able to help in any way. When the new GM took over, he announced some changes," Kotalik said, referring to Jay Feaster. "He wanted to cut some salaries, I knew he might be talking about me."
At the time, Kotalik was considering a chance to return to Europe so he could play closer to his native Czech Republic.
"It seemed like the Flames had a plan to buy me out so I would become a free agent," Kotalik said. "I would have considered the options, and one of the options for sure would be maybe coming back home for good."
Instead, Kotalik has a chance to reconnect with the Buffalo franchise for which he scored all but 22 of his 136 career goals and also established himself as a force in shootouts, where he has scored on 22 of 44 attempts with 11 game-winners.
There is no guarantee he will make the roster at the end of training camp. Buffalo is over the salary cap and could hide his US$3 million salary by sending him to the minors.
"I hope that I will be on this team and I will do good things for this team," Kotalik said. "I have a feeling that this is a really good hockey team. With the young exceptional talent coming up, it's really exciting."
And he prepares for the season with a renewed perspective. He lost three good friends—Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek—who were members of the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, who died in a plane crash in Russia earlier this month.
"It's been tough. It still is. It's always in the back of your mind," Kotalik said. "It gives you a different look, anddifferent life perspective. I want to have fun and enjoy things. I'm just happy being around the people I like and I know. And everything else will take care of itself."