In 2008, the Detroit Red Wings signed a small 6-foot-1, 180-pound forward from Finland in the hopes that the team had found another European diamond in the rough. He signed a one-year contract with the Wings but was forced to play with Detroit’s AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, where he began to earn the notice of the big squad thanks to his 46 points in 57 games. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock even admitted at the time that he was the “best player” he had ever been forced to send down to the minors.
Five years and three teams later, Ville Leino is among the most disappointing players of the 2011-12 NHL season, while earning a huge contract the Buffalo Sabres gave him before the season began. The contract made Leino the fourth-highest paid player on the team but what looked like a slightly overpriced intriguing salary a few months ago has turned into a mistake that won’t be easy for Buffalo to dump.
Leino’s poor play is just one of many reasons the Sabres find themselves near the bottom of the Northeast Division. Injuries, dreadful slumps and a goaltender that has failed to look his typical self are the kind of excuses Sabres fans are reminded of during each and every telecast. With just one point seperating Buffalo and the last place Montreal Canadiens, if the Sabres don’t find a way to right the ship soon, the team will fail to qualify for the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
But this season didn’t start out so bad and Leino was a big reason for that.
Leino had spent the previous two seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers after Detroit traded him to the orange and black for Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The Red Wings had given up on the then 26-year-old Leino, dumping him near the trade deadline and he did little to impress the Flyers during the regular season. Then the playoffs came around and Leino exploded, becoming a well known name throughout the NHL. The Flyers came up just short in the Stanley Cup Finals but Leino’s seven goals and 14 assists were a big part of Philadelphia’a success.
Last season was a career year for Leino, who picked up right where he left off in the playoffs the year before. In 81 games, Leino had an impressive 19 goals and 53 points – strong numbers for a guy who spent plenty of time on Philadelphia’s third line.
Not even a crystal ball could have foreseen the Flyers offseason moves this past summer and with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards shipped west to separate cities, it was believed the team would resign Leino simply out of necessity. However, the Flyers weren’t willing to pay him what he expected and he became a commodity.
Instead, Buffalo signed the unrestricted free agent to a six-year deal worth $27 million. It was a move at the time that the Sabres hoped would put them over the hump. The past two seasons the Sabres were forced to an early exit in the playoffs, both coming in the quarterfinals. The Sabres seemed to have put in the time constructing the team in recent years and all the pieces were coming together – a experienced coach, a top-tier goaltender, a strong defense (thanks to another big signing, that of Christian Ehrhoff) and now another scorer to a young offense.
Leino scored a goal in his first game as a Sabre – a 4-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki, Finland – but that would be the highlight of his season as he wouldn’t score his next goal for another 14 games. He simply couldn’t get on the score sheet, earning just two points during that span.
Now Sabres fans basically find Leino to be a funny – yet sad – joke and don’t care how it happens but want him to earn his paychecks for another team next season. The 27 million-dollar man has just 10 points this season, three of which have landed in the back of the net and despite putting up beer-league type numbers, Leino is still averaging just over 16 minutes of ice time a game. With five years left on his contract, Leino has plenty of time to prove his worth, due to the fact that the Sabres might have a tough time unloading the overpriced center. It’s too early to give up on such a big offseason acquisition but it appears as though the fan base has already done so.
And in a hockey-crazy town like Buffalo once you are in the dog house, it is nearly impossible to get out.