Primed and ready, but there are still questions (3)


That’s what they used to call him. A magician with the puck. Slick, deft, gifted. Supreme vision and sick passing skills. Versatile, and a team player. Compared to Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk?

Wait, what?!?

Ville Leino is the newest member of the Buffalo Sabres. The team who’s back he broke last April with a game 6 overtime goal, to send his team, the Philadelphia Flyers, back home for game 7 with such momentum that they dispatched the Sabres in embarrassing fashion.  All the Sabres had to do was score one goal. On to round two then.

Who was watching Leino on that play, anyway?!?

Apparently, Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff were.

He was supposed to be a villain in a long line of Sabre scoundrels, right up there with Brett Hull, Darius Kasparaitis and Brad Park.

On the opening day of free agency, the Finnish-born forward signed a 6-year/$27 million deal to play for the Sabres, and all was forgiven. Immediately. That’s how Buffalonians are. We hate your guts until you come and play for one of our teams.

Big things are expected out of Leino, but that cannot be based solely on his (short) NHL career, for sure. Ruff envisions him at center, a position he hasn’t played exclusively since his days in Finland. He is supposed to push Derek Roy for playing time as one of the Sabres’ top two pivots. So, with that I ask, in “Primed and ready…” #3:

Will Ville Leino succeed being placed back at center?

Leino started his hockey career at age 17 playing center ice for his hometown team in Savonlinna, in the Suomi-sarja, basically a division III-type league in Finland. After two years, he made the jump all the way to the Finnish elite league, where he started on his rise to being a highly sought after player. In 2007, ironically after he was switched from center to wing, and on his third team in four years, Leino broke Jokerit’s club record for most points in a season with 77, in only 55 games. That season saw him win the Most Outstanding Player award in the Elite league, catching the eye of NHL scouts and general managers, and thus ending his European hockey career.

Leino signed as a free agent with Detroit in 2008. He came to training camp that year poised to grab a spot on the Red Wings, but he couldn’t crack the lineup, and was demoted to Grand Rapids of the AHL. Wings coach Mike Babcock, clearly at odds over that decision, called Leino “The best player I’ve ever had to send to the minors“.  After 55 games playing in the Motor city, he was traded to the Flyers on February 6th, 2010, and quickly became a beloved player in Philadelphia. In the playoffs that year, playing on a line with Scott Hartnell and former Sabre Danny Briere, Leino racked up 21 points in 19 games and a star was born. This past season saw him set career highs in goals, assists and points and Ville was widely considered to be right at the top of the 2011 free agent pool.

So, why place him back at center, when clearly his best years, at home and here in North America, were on the wing?

During his time in the city of  Brotherly Lo…(sorry, can’t do it), Leino did play at center some of the time, and even when he did play wing, the Flyers’ system allowed Leino to position himself down low where a center would normally play. One of the things Leino loves to do when he has the puck is to weave in and out of traffic, normally something reserved for a pivot. His vision is said to be extraordinary, and his playmaking ability sublime. He will hold onto the puck for that extra second, until a teammate opens himself up for a sweet pass, or to beat a sprawled out goalie. Last season saw him, albeit in limited time, finish the year with a faceoff winning percentage of 57.4%. Had he played center full time, and maintained that pace, he would have finished tied for 5th in the league. Can he duplicate those numbers for a full year? There’s no way in H-E-double hockey sticks to know, but if he even comes close, we will have two of the best faceoff men in the league (Paul Gaustad). For a Sabres team, even with the Goose, that finished at 47% on draws last year, that would be huge. Winning draws means winning games.

Much of what Leino will actually bring statistically is a mystery. The man has basically had one great playoffs, followed by a very good, yet up and down season, followed by a decent, but not great 2011 playoffs. He only scored in 4 of the Flyers’ last 36 regular season games, but still finished with 19 goals. The Sabres are hoping that Leino’s upward trajectory has only just begun. At 27, he is just barely entering his prime.

He was surrounded by a ton of talent in Philly, and had two phenomenal, complimentary linemates in Hartnell and Briere. But, still, he wasn’t “the man”. He averaged only 16:00 of ice time a game, basically low 2nd line minutes. He played some power-play minutes for Philly, but didn’t kill a lick of penalties, averaging a nice, round 0:00 in PK ice time. He killed exactly 41 seconds in penalties for the entire season last year, a surprising statistic for a Finnish born and bred player. The Scandinavian players are usually well-rounded and taught to play in all situations. Perhaps he just hasn’t gotten the chance, which is where I’m heading next.

Leino, by early projections, should be a given to play some serious top-line minutes this year. He should average 18+ minutes a game, and get some serious power-play time. The Sabres are desperate to find a center that can play on one of their top two lines, and Ville fits the bill. Even he says he feels more comfortable up the middle and, though his best years came mainly as a winger, why would you argue with the man? Especially given Buffalo’s situation. Buffalo needs a centerman. The guy wants to play center. Sounds like a good fit to me.

Even though he prefers that the “Maestro” nickname remains in the past (a result of maturation), I envision him finding Drew Stafford on some pretty back-door plays, hitting Thomas Vanek as he breaks into the open ice, or floating a gorgeous saucer pass onto Christian Ehrhoff‘s graphite cannon for a one-timer on the man-advantage. I’m picturing Leino winning a key draw, pushing the puck back to the point, and tying up his man as we score the winning goal with seconds left. After all, in his short time in the league, he has proven to be a money player. He loves the playoffs. Lives for it. He thrives under the pressure. He wants the puck on his stick at that key moment, and has said as much.

That’s the kind of guy I want on my team. That’s why I feel he’ll be successful in Buffalo. He wants it; that chance to be a difference maker. Pavel Datsyuk? Nah.

He’s Ville Leino, and I’m good with it. That name is way cooler, anyway.

Damn, I’m pumped for October…




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Tags: Buffalo Sabres Ehrhoff Finland Hockey Finnish Nhl Players Jokerit Maestro Mike Babcock Stafford Top NHL Faceoff Men Vanek Ville Leino

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