On July 1, 2011, the Buffalo Sabres signed free agent forward Ville Leino to a six year, $27 million contract. To put things mildly, Leino was unable to live up to his giant contract. After a season in which he scored no goals and only fifteen assists in fifty-eight games, GM Tim Murray decided the time had come to part ways with the veteran forward.
Ville Leino was put on waivers earlier this week and the club will buyout the remaining three years of Leino’s contract. With the club embarking on a new chapter of rebuilding, it became clear that Leino was not in the Sabres’ plans. As a result, Murray has decided that it was best for both the Sabres and for the forward to part ways.
Ville Leino's agent on the buyout. "It wasn’t unexpected, let’s put it that way." #Sabres
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) June 17, 2014
Unfortunately, Leino’s time with the Sabres will be remembered as one of the biggest free agent signing busts in the team’s history. When he arrived in Buffalo, many had high expectations for Leino. This move was viewed as a statement made by the Sabres that they were willing to spend money on free agents to win now. However, this message did not come to fruition in Buffalo during Leino’s tenure as the forward was unable to establish a consistent game with the Sabres. As the 2013-2014 season came to a close, it became clear that a change was needed and the Sabres brass have decided to move on.
Ville Leino’s NHL Career Before Buffalo
Leino began his NHL career when he signed with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. It would be a few years before Leino would find success in the NHL. In fifty-five games with Detroit over two seasons, Leino scored nine goals and notched seven assists. Detroit traded Leino to the Philadelphia Flyers in February of 2010 for Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth round pick in 2011.
The forward closed out the 2009-2010 season in Philadelphia scoring four points in thirteen games. He proved to be a valuable commodity during the post-season where he notched twenty-one points in nineteen games. It seemed that this was the beginning of what might be a promising NHL career. The success that Leino had for the Flyers in the playoffs would continue in the year that followed.
#Flyers forward Ville Leino is continuing his strong play from last spring's playoff run in 2010-11. http://bit.ly/iejDVF
— NHLPA (@NHLPA) December 13, 2010
Leino built on his playoff success and continued to play productive hockey for the Flyers during the 2010-2011 season. He spent time on a line with forwards Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere. Interestingly, each of these forwards struggled to some extent the season before this line was put together. Once together, the tandem established strong chemistry and became an offensive force in Philadelphia.
Leino went on to score nineteen goals and thirty-four assists during the 2010-2011 season. This remains his strongest offensive output to date in his six-year NHL career. Leino also scored five points in eleven post-season games. He scored some huge goals during the first round of the playoffs when the Flyers defeated the Sabres four games to three. Leino’s performance during this series played a role in the club’s interest in the forward during the 2011 offseason. For his career, he has a respectable twenty-eight points in thirty-seven NHL playoff games.
Why Did the Sabres Sign Ville Leino?
The big fish in free agency on offense during the summer of 2011 was forward Brad Richards. Buffalo’s former GM Darcy Regier headed into the post-season backed by the nearly unlimited resources of the Sabres’ new owner Terry Pegula. Pegula bought the team in February of 2011 pledging to use his resources to bring a championship to Buffalo. As a result, Regier had his eye on many of the top free agents heading into the start of the free agent signing period.
As the time drew nearer to July 1st, Regier decided that Ville Leino was the player he wanted to sign the most. The Sabres turned their attention to signing forward Ville Leino. The club made him a huge contract offer and Leino accepted it.
The Buffalo Sabres passed on Brad Richards for a 6 year $27 million dollar contract with Flyers forward Ville Leino: http://ow.ly/5vwLt
— News 4 Buffalo (@news4buffalo) July 3, 2011
The six year, $27 million contract given to Leino by the Sabres was a high price to pay for a player that had just one NHL regular season under his belt where he scored more than ten goals. However, given his success in Philadelphia it seemed to be a gamble worth taking for Regier and his staff. Leino appeared to be on the upswing of his NHL career and the Sabres hoped that he would reach his prime while a member of the blue and gold.
Troubles in Buffalo
Fate had other plans in store for Leino who never lived up to his hefty contract. In his first season with the Sabres, Leino battled through a few injuries but managed to play seventy-one games for the club. He finished the 2011-2012 season with eight goals and seventeen assists. Injuries severely hampered the 2012-2013 season for Leino. The forward appeared in just eight games for the Sabres but he managed six points in those games where he scored two goals and notched four assists.
Leino gained some critics right off the bat when he signed his contract but he would gain many more after his first two seasons in Buffalo. Some fans called for the Sabres to use one of their compliance buyouts on the forward as the club headed into the 2013 offseason. Instead of buying out Leino last summer, former GM Darcy Regier decided to keep the forward around for another season. This decision among others led to Regier’s demise as GM of the Buffalo Sabres.
[See Also: The Case For The Sabres to Keep Ville Leino]
Leino’s struggles in Buffalo continued during the 2013-2014 season. The forward finished the year with a goose-egg in goals scored and managed just fifteen assists in fifty-eight games. Leino missed some games due to injury but, while he was healthy, he did not meet the expectations the Sabres had when he was signed in 2011. The veteran finished his tenure with the Sabres with ten goals and thirty-six assists. In his three seasons in Buffalo he appeared in one hundred thirty-seven games out of a possible two hundred and forty-six.
Time to Move On
Earlier this week, the Sabres announced that Ville Leino would be put on waivers for the purpose of a buy out. In his severance package, Leino will be paid a reported $1.22 million per year for the next six years. While this is a hefty price to pay for a forward to not play for a team, Leino’s buy out will not count against the Sabres salary cap.
#Sabres will have lowest cap payroll in the league following Leino buyout — just $34.4M for 15 players. Can spend $4.585M per opening.
— CapGeek (@capgeek) June 17, 2014
This move is a very positive one for the Sabres. As the club moves forward in the rebuilding process it will continue to add assets in the hopes of becoming a playoff contender. Some believe the rebuild can be accomplished in two or three years. The club may find itself up against the cap as it moves forward so it will look to add value while adhering to the limitations of the cap. Being able to remove a player that has not lived up to expectations without the burden of his salary against the cap is all around good news for Buffalo.
Leino’s performance made a negative impression in Buffalo but that isn’t to say his NHL career is over. With $1.22 million coming in for the next six seasons, another NHL club may want to take a flyer on Leino by signing him to a short-term contract at a discount. Leino likely won’t get big money or a big term deal again from a club based on his recent performance. However, if he were to accept, let’s say, a one year deal from an NHL club and work hard to re-establish himself then he possibly could earn a more long-term spot with a new club.
Regardless of how Leino’s career pans out, the Buffalo Sabres are free and clear of his contract. The Sabres can now move forward by offering Leino’s roster spot to another player more in line with the club’s plans for the future. With the upcoming draft and looming free agency period, GM Tim Murray is poised to hit the ground running with a ton of draft picks and cap space which gives him an ideal amount of resources to work with as Buffalo rebuilds.
Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW