Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Series Of Events Highlight Ville Leino's Journey

Confused by the Ville Leino signing this past July 1st? Scratching your head at the amount ($27M) and term? Love the aggressiveness of the signing, but are cautiously optimistic that it will work out? Wondering if he can produce in a top-six center role?

Me too.

Whereas the trade for Robyn Regehr is a landmark trade on one level, the signing of Ville Leino to play a top-six center role on the team should be looked upon as another.

But, whereas the Regehr acquisition will probably end up being as solid as his stay-at-home play, the outcome of the Leino signing could be anywhere from a less-than-stellar/drunken sailor overpayment to pure genius and a tribute to the hockey minds within the organization.

Why the Sabres Went After Leino On July 1st

It's no secret that the Sabres were thin down the middle even before the departure of Tim Connolly (Leafs.)

It was also no secret that they were intent upon bolstering the center position via free agency. They had a considerable offer for free-agent darling Brad Richards ready, but, with the glamour-girl New York Rangers seemingly already in bed with him, a red-headed step-child like the Sabres really had no chance.

So they moved on, rather quickly, to Plan-B:  Philadelphia Flyers free agent, Ville Lieno.

Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier, at the Leino-signing press conference (which can be accessed here through the Sabres Edge blog,) said that "[Leino's] coming into his own" and envisions him as "someone that will not only complement, but contribute significantly to improving and driving [the] offense."

As Plan-B in the quest for a top-six center, Leino will be moving to a position that he hasn't played in four years even though he says that he prefers to play there.

Head Coach Lindy Ruff said, "Leino enjoyed playing fact if you study the Philly's system, a lot of times he was the guy playing down low on the Hartnell/Briere line. I talked to him about all three positions, and he's comfortable about all three, but the position he likes playing most is center."

"In a long conversation about how we play and with the amount the defense join the play, that second wave of attack," Ruff continued, "Ville's strength is on the puck, he can make plays in tight areas, he can look for the second wave."

These attributes were not something Regier and Ruff plucked out of the air to either justify or convince. This is what they saw in his play, what they heard from the player himself and what has been a constant in his career since his days overseas.

The Good And the Questionable From Finland

Back in May, 2008, Matthew Wuest of redwingcentral talked with Jokerit, Finland Head Coach , Doug Shedden on Leino.

In an straightforward interview filled with insight revealing both the positives and negatives about Leino's future in the NHL, Shedden had this to say, “He’s a natural center and I moved him to right wing and it was better for him. He’s strong on the puck down low, he’s a good cycle guy, and he draws a lot of penalties because of his puck control.”

Shedden also says that it "is going to be tough" for Leino to make it in the NHL. He uses Leino's average skating and having to adapt to smaller rinks as possible impediments to Leino's success.

But, on the positive side, one thing that Shedden says may be the ultimate determining factor is that “[Leino’s] a heck of a competitor — he probably led the league in practice fights. He loves to come to the rink, he loves to practice, he loves to put his equipment on and compete.”

“The determination is there, and that can compensate for a lot of things,” Shedden continued. “He’s one guy who could (make it because) of that.”

The Red Wings Like Leino

Detroit is the first of two quality organizations that Leino has played for in his short NHL career, the other being Philadelphia.

No other organization in hockey is better at finding diamonds in the rough than the Red Wings with a scouting department that is unparalleled in hockey.

Grandmaster GM, Ken Holland, brought Leino into the Red Wings fold as an undrafted free agent and he produced well on the farm in Grand Rapids. In the latter part of the 2008/09 season Leino had the opportunity to play in 13 regular season games for Detroit. The results were five goals, four assists and a +5 plus/minus.

It was enough for Holland to sign Leino to a two-year, one-way contract with the Wings.

Holland was interviewed by Ansar Khan of mlive in July, 2009, and had this to say about the Leino, "We like his hockey sense, his ability to protect the puck in the offensive zone," Holland said. "He's got a scoring touch and he goes to the hard areas of the ice.

"He just needs to adjust to the pace of the game. His speed is average, but we can put Ville with different people. He can play on a skilled line or chip in offense on the third line."

Although Leino had a less than stellar 2009 post-season with the Wings, there was reason to believe that he'd be another Holland diamond in Detroit.

Crashing Back To Earth In Hockeytown

"As a Wings fan, we're all susceptible of asking the 'What have you done for me, lately?' question at times. In Leino's case, maybe it should be a 'What have you done for me, ever?' Thus wrote Eric Fish in the Flint Journal on December 10, 2009.

Leino had 27 games with Detroit and was playing with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for a third of the season yet only put up a paltry three goals during that time.

What happened? Was Leino turning into a "bust" for the vaunted Detroit scouting staff?

"I'm not knocking Drew Miller," Fish continues, "but it says something about what direction Leino is headed in right now when a guy the team picked off waivers three weeks ago is starting over one that was under a two-year contract before training camp."

This was after Leino was a healthy scratch yet again with expectations plummeting for the kid.

From "diamond-in-the-rough" to "underachiever" in a matter of five months with the best organization in hockey. And, at the time, an organization that was also heading into the 2009/10 stretch-run butting up against the cap with solid vets ready to return from injury.

           The Writing Was On the Wall. Or...

It wasn't exactly a "bag of pucks," but it was fairly close.

The February 6, 2010 trade went like this: Ville Leino to Philadelphia for borderline NHL defenseman Olle-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth-round pick.

With Leino underachieving and the Wings having some vets returning from injury, the salary cap demanded that Holland make a move. The obvious choice at the time was Leino.

Two quick notes on Tollefsen. He is no longer in the NHL and the Sabres Drew Stafford bloodied the 6'2", 211 lb Norwegian "tough-guy" in a preseason fight October 2, 2008.

All-in-all, Holland did get a return for the undrafted free agent, but it was obviously a "bail" by the Red Wings organization when it came to Leino. A blemish on an organization that is usually spot-on with their talent evaluations.

Did the Wings Bail Too Soon On Leino?

If you look at the 2010 post-season that Leino had with the Flyers, in one word, yup.

The Philadelphia Flyers run to the Stanley Cup in 2010 ended with a six-game loss at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Finals.

Ville Leino had a playoff-run that left many scratching their heads wondering how the Wings could have bailed on a player who ended up scoring seven goals and adding 14 assists in 19 games in the playoffs for the Flyers.

Bill Hoppe on briefly wrote about Leino "falling flat on his face" in Detroit.

In the Hoppe piece Wings GM Ken Holland had this to say about Leino's rough go in Detroit, “To be fair, he hadn’t done much here,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “We really liked him. We felt he could be an NHL player, but when we had all those injuries and he got significant ice time, he really didn’t do anything with it.”

So what happened? How did Leino go from rising star, to healthy scratch, to a trade that was a low-point in his career, to a potential Conn Smythe-type player in the playoffs?

The Right Situation For the Time

Chemistry and hands-off coaching seemed to be big contributors, not to mention his own state of mind.

Leino put it this way, "I need a little freedom to play my hockey and make the plays I do,” [he] told the Free Press (via the Hoppe piece,) adding, “When you can play the way you want and play the hockey you like, and then you have success, your confidence goes up and then when the whole team is winning, your confidence just keeps growing. I’m very happy where I’m at right now – the small things have started to click, and I’m in a good position right now. It’s great.”

Playing with veterans like former Sabre Daniel Briere and veteran Scott Hartnell was huge for Leino. That line combination was the best line in the playoffs. And it wouldn't have happened had Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne not gone down with injuries. Before that, Leino was a healthy scratch for the first four games of the playoffs.

Dogged determination and puck-control ability, two traits alluded to by his Finnish coach, came to the fore in those playoffs for Philadelphia.

From Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette, “Right now, he seems to have so much energy out there. You can double-shift him … without taking him off the ice. He seems to have a lot of jam right now.

“I think what everybody is impressed with … is his ability to hang on to that puck and make plays,” he said. “It’s really beneficial for a team when you’re trying to create offense to have a guy that can stop and start and cut back and do a whole bunch of different things with the puck.

“Because other things open up, he’s able to see the ice,” he said. “He’s got a terrific skill level. It was a tremendous pick-up for Paul Holmgren to get him here for the playoffs.”

Red Wings Fans Take It All In Stride

That Leino "morphed" into a clutch player pretty much stunned everyone.

'Who the hell is this guy?'

'Where was this guy in November?'

'Why couldn't this guy do that for us?'

The "guy," of course, is Ville Leino."

Those thoughts by Matt Hutter of the bleacherreport pretty much encompassed the thoughts of most of "Hockeytown" when he threw that out at the beginning of his piece.

After laying everything out--Leino's ups and downs with Detroit and even in Philly--Hutter spins the tale and outcome in an appropriate way by saying that,  "If Leino's performance as a Philadelphia Flyer has any bearing on his former team, it reveals only that the Detroit Red Wings remain one of the best scouting organizations in hockey."

Sure enough, if you look back at it, the Wings did find a diamond in the rough, it just took a weird cosmical alignment to bring Leino's talents out.

Says Hutter, "The Red Wings saw in Leino the raw talent and puck-possession skills that have come to define Detroit Red Wings forwards and thought he'd find quick comfort and success in a red and white uniform. Unfortunately, he didn't."

"Fortunately for the Flyers, they reaped the rewards of the Detroit Red Wings scouting department, as Leino finally lived up to the potential the Wings new he had when they signed him in the first place."

Paul Holmgren Was Never Affraid Of Turnover in Philly

When Philly Chairman Ed Snider talks, GM Paul Holmgren listens.

For years Holmgren stocked up on talented skaters and paid them big money while leaving goaltending to a mix of journeymen and rookies.

In 2010, that formula failed to win a cup.

In 2011, it was a disaster as their goaltending roulette wheel nearly caused an upset by Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs. In the second round vs. eventual Cup-winner Boston, the Bruins exposed the Flyers for what they were and the Bruins dismissed them in a sweep.

Snider was sick of the roulette wheel in goal and apparently Holmgren and Laviolette were tired of the way Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were conducting themselves off-ice as well.

It ended up where both Richards and Carter were traded and Snider's wish for a legitimate starting goaltender was granted when Holmgren signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract.

As for Leino, one thing we do know is that the Flyers had the opportunity to sign the winger to a contract before he hit the market as an unrestricted free agent this past July 1.

Much to the chagrin of  phillysportsworld writer Wayne Cella, Leino should be ticked at the way the Philadelphia Flyers organization handled him.

Cella chronicles all of the moves that Philly made in the off-season, from trading Carter and Richards, to signing Bryzgalov, to trading Darrell Powe and letting Daniel Carcillo walk. All of it done so that the Flyers would have cap-room.

Through it all, Cella described Leino as "a good soldier," one that did the professional thing and kept quiet while he waited...

And waited.

And waited.

And he was still waiting on Philadelphia when Buffalo came knocking on July 1st with a six-year/$27M contract which he promptly signed.

What Do These Chain Of Events Mean For Leino As A Buffalo Sabre?

The constants throughout Leino's successful parts of the past three NHL seasons are based upon his work in the offensive zone, stickhandling in a phone-booth, holding on to the puck for a trailer, and finding those openings in the defense.

His dogged determination, competitive nature and willingness to go to the dirty areas are all aspects that come to the fore and guide him to success.

Briere, a former fan-favorite in Buffalo who was on Philly's top-producing line with Leino knows what he brings to the table.

Last January,'s Sam Carchidi wrote a piece about Briere's career-high scoring pace and how Briere credited his success to his line-mates--Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino.

Of Leino, Briere said, "Ville's a playmaker, and he gives me the chance to open up...when you play with a player [Leino] who likes to make plays, you give him the puck and try to get open."

When Leino signed with Buffalo, John Vogl of sabresedge talked with Briere about his former linemate and new Sabre, "The fans are going to love him," Briere said by phone. "I know personally I loved playing with him. He's a very creative player, very strong on the puck, exciting to watch. He's a clutch player, as you guys have seen in the playoffs.

"It's disappointing for me to see him leave but I'm happy that he's going to a place I know very well and a place he's going to be appreciated."

High praise from a trusted voice, one that really has no reason to sugarcoat anything.

It's All About Ice Time

The attributes that everyone from former coach Shedden to former linemate Briere expound upon, seem to disappear when Leino's confidence level is low.

Fact is, he loves the ice time. He needs ice-time.

“The player I am, it’s not always enough to just get ice time – you need to play a lot and play with good players,” he said in a piece. “I got a chance every now and then [with the Red Wings], but I didn’t really get a good chance that I wanted.”

We're not really sure what that was supposed to mean. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Johan Franzen. Those guys aren't really chopped liver. Nor is the Detroit Red Wings organization.

And while he was a roaring success in the 2010 playoffs, his 19 goals and 53 points last season for the Flyers, although pretty solid, weren't spectacular. In fact, Buffalo winger Tyler Ennis, a possible linemate for Leino, had 20 goals and 29 assists in his first full season as a Sabres' rookie last season.

We also need to take into consideration Lindy Ruff's philosophy when it comes to ice-time--the players need to earn it. The caveat here will be to see just how much leeway Ruff gives to his players up-front. With the defense solidified and Ryan Miller in net, we could see a return to a style similar to the 2006/07 "run-n-gun" play.

But, that's neither here nor there right now.

For now, Leino finds himself in a period of transition. He went from a modest, six-figure salary to big-bucks. From big-city Philadelphia to small city Buffalo. And he will be expected to make the transition from winger to top-six center.

That would be a lot on anyone's plate and we'll see just how smooth the adjustment will be.

In the Stephen Whyno piece above, Leino takes the simple approach to the forces that affect one's play, “When things happen, I just try to make the best of them,” Leino said. “I just stick with it and do the best I can in the situation.”

Which Leino will show up when the Sabres open the season? Will he have the talent around him to make him successful the way he was in Philly? Will he mature enough in the next few seasons to the point where he'll rely on his own talent to bring out the best in him? Can he bring those talents to the middle as a center?

Maybe more importantly, can he play in Lindy's system? And will Ruff allow him the freedom to play to his strengths?

Plenty of questions that will be start to be answered at the beginning of the season.

All we have right now is a series of events that brought Leino to Buffalo. From the remote areas of Finland to "Hockeytown" to the streets of Philadelphia to a home in Buffalo for the next six years. At each stop, certain events have created markers to chronicle his journey towards the ultimate goal--the Stanley Cup--with the ultimate question being, will a future marker for Leino be one that sees him parading down Delaware Ave. as part of a Sabres' Cup-winning team?

Tune in. It should be as interesting.


  1. Boos, this article is perfectly awesome! Some fantastic work. Wish you wrote for the Buzz
    -Bleed B&G

  2. appreciate the props b&g...that was a pretty long one...thx for reading