Leino's numbers through eight games: one goal, one assist, minus-3, one third period benching.
Sabres LW Tyler Ennis, who, btw, hadn't registered a point in seven games, is on a week-to-week basis after messing up his ankle at Tampa Bay. With that, two things that'll affect Leino: a move back to the wing (where he recently said he'd like to play) and more ice-time.
Pretty sure that this is a blessing in disguise for Leino as well as Head Coach Lindy Ruff. Ruff's been in a bit of a quandary this young season as his initial line of Ennis/Leino/Drew Stafford failed to produce anything of significance.
Leino, is like every other hockey player, wants ice-time. And according to him, he needs ice-time. But he hasn't produced enough to warrant the minutes. In fact, after averaging around 14 minutes through the first four games, Leino got less than 10 minutes vs. Montreal and found his butt parked on the bench.
It was a one game thing as he logged 14 minutes at Florida and over 17 at Tampa Bay. Last night vs. Tampa he had nearly 16 minutes. And, although he's barely registered a blip on the score sheet, snaring an assist in those three games, at least it's a start.
Ruff has always had a philosophy that ice-time is earned. And ya better be defensively responsible too. With Leino botching defensive responsibilities, Ruff needed to figure out how to get him the ice-time he needs while adhering to his philosophies.
The injury to Ennis makes it relatively easy. Leino goes to the wing which should help his comfort level, he'll get "second-line" minutes, and, in addition, he'll be getting that coveted power play time. Ruff, for his part, can "save face" by giving Leino all of this without altering his "ice-time is earned" philosophy.
But, it's somewhat of a band-aid solution that will only work long-term if Leino starts producing now and he continues to produce when he's moved back to center with the return of Ennis.
Ice-time Isn't Leino's Only "Need"
Bill Hoppe wrote a piece for msg.com after Leino-'s stunning playoff performance for the Flyers in 2010. The Detroit Red Wings had traded Leino because, according to GM Ken Holland via the Detroit Free Press, "He hadn’t done much here. 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.” Significant ice-time with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
OK, that didn't work out. But why did it work so well in Philly? What does Leino need to produce seven goals and 14 assists in 19 playoff games?
“I need a little freedom to play my hockey and make the plays I do,” Leino told the Free Press (via the Hoppe piece.) “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,”
Based upon watching the Sabres' Thomas Vanek cherry-pick early in the season, I'm pretty sure that Ruff has altered his stance on in-game play and has allowed more freedom to be creative and/or use the talents available to the player. But, if you're eschewing defensive responsibilities, you better make it up on the score sheet.
As an example, Vanek has seven goals and four assists in eight games this season and is a plus-3. Leino has one goal and one assist and is a minus-3. Vanek may not be a Selke candidate, but he's making up for it by scoring.
Ice-Time, Freedom and...
- Leino says he needs ice-time which he'll get in Ennis' absence.
- He'll be on the wing, something he's mentioned recently, which will inherently give him less defensive responsibilities and allow him to get up-ice quicker which, in turn, should lead to more scoring/playmaking opportunities.
- Based upon plus/minus, Ruff has softened his stance a bit on skill players focusing too much on defense.
- And Leino will have the freedom to play his way out of a slow start.
This past February, there was an article by Stephen Whyno celebrating Leino's one-year anniversary with the Flyers. Whyno called the trade for Leino "one of the biggest heists in franchise history."
He chronicled Leino's journey a bit and asked him why he was producing now after a very slow/rough start with Philly. This is what the winger said, “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. “I got a chance every now and then [with the Red Wings], but I didn’t really get a good chance that I wanted.”
OK. So not only does Leino need ice-time which as of now with the Buffalo Sabres is not really warranted, and not only does he need freedom, but he also needs to "play with really good players."
(Blogger puts head in hands and sighs)
It's Early, But I've Gotten A Headache From This
Not that all of this is really a big deal right now, but Lindy Ruff definitely has some work to do. Both he and GM Darcy Regier said they could make this work and it's really early in the season not to mention really early in Leino's six year contract. But, ya gotta wonder if Leino's primadonna-like tendencies were covered during the interview process. And ya gotta wonder how Ruff will handle all of this.
Is there a solution this early in the season?
Yeah, sure. The easiest thing for Ruff to do would be to put Leino between Vanek and Jason Pominville when Ennis returns. He'll get the minutes, have the freedom and he'll have "good players" on his wings.
Problem is, Luke Adam centering Vanek and Pominville has been the only consistent threat this season. Ruff called Adam a surprise--"a factor we didn't count on"-- on the Howard Simon show yesterday (5:00-minute mark) as they delved into a discussion concerning Leino. With Adam being very young and just getting a feel for the NHL, he also needs good players surrounding him. In fact his success thus far can be directly attributed to the confidence he has playing with veteran linemates.
And who's to say that a line of Vanek, Leino, Pominville would break Leino out of his funk anyway.
(shrugs) It could be a solution, though.
So could putting Nathan Gerbe on his wing. Leino played his best hockey with former Sabre Daniel Briere so having a player with Briere-like tendencies may just be what's needed. But, who on the Sabres squad can bring to the table what Philly RW Scott Hartnel brought to the Briere/Leino line? Rugged, front-of-the-net play with a good amount of skill?
If you've read this far, congrats...and thx.
It really shouldn't be that complicated. A player like Leino being signed for the dollar amount and term of his contract should be professional enough to adapt to a system and his linemates.
That being said, it's still waaaaay to early to even think of the panic-button with Leino, or the Sabres in general. Leino will need a significant period of adjustment. It's a long season and the Sabres are off to a good start this season which takes a lot of the pressure off...for now.