BUFFALO – As expected, the Sabres placed Ville Leino on unconditional waivers Tuesday and will be using a compliance buyout on the final three seasons of the Finn’s six-year, $27 million deal, ridding themselves of perhaps the worst contract in NHL history.
Yes, the worst ever.
When he wasn’t battling a series of injuries, the 30-year-old forward produced only 10 goals and 46 points in 137 games with the Sabres, including zero goals in 58 appearances during a wretched 2013-14 campaign.
The Sabres paid Leino about $16 million. Ouch.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray, who took over in January, said following the season it was “a very good possibility” Leino would be bought out. Now, one of the most maligned Buffalo athletes in recent memory is gone.
“It wasn’t unexpected, let’s put it that way,” Markus Lehto, Leino’s agent, said about the buyout by phone Tuesday.
The Sabres owe Leino two-thirds of the $11 million remaining on the final three years of his contract. Leino’s $4.5 million salary cap hit is gone.
According to capgeek.com, the $7,333,333 Leino’s due will be paid out over six years at $1,222,222 annually. So, while Leino’s gone, he’ll stay on the payroll until 2019-20.
The buyout is the sixth-largest in NHL history, according to capgeek.com, ranking behind only Vincent Lecavlier, Rick DiPietro, Ilya Bryzgalov, Alexei Yashin and Mikhail Grabovski.
Given Leino’s meager production, his NHL career could be over. There’s zero chance a team will claim him. One rumor has him returning to his native Finland to play for Jokerit Helsinki, which begins play in the KHL next season. Leino played his last European season with that club in 2007-08.
One possible NHL landing spot? Perhaps Philadelphia, where Leino thrived before coming to Buffalo. Flyers GM Ron Hextall has said left wing, a position Leino played there, is a top need.
Lehto said Leino wants to stay in the NHL.
“Yeah, for sure, in the NHL, he’s (a) top player,” he said.
He added: “I’m sure I’ll be talking to teams, yes.”
It’s easy to forget now, but signing Leino, while risky, made some sense as free agency opened in 2011. Back then, the Sabres needed another scoring center as they loaded up for what they believed would be a long Stanley Cup run.
After struggling to stay in the lineup with Detroit and Philadelphia in 2009-10, Leino had seven goals and 21 points in 19 playoff games as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup final later that season. Leino then had 19 goals and 53 points in 2010-11, his first full NHL season. He also scored the overtime winner in Buffalo in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
So with Brad Richards the only name center on the market that summer, former GM Darcy Regier got creative, overpaying for Leino, who had only played wing during his brief NHL career. The Sabres said Leino, a center in Europe before coming to North America, wanted to go back to the middle.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case. Leino was back on the wing that October and spent his entire Sabres career moving around.
He scored eight goals and 25 points in 71 games in 2011-12 and two goals and six points in eight games in 2012-13. Incredibly, he had only 38 shots in 2013-14, a season he frittered away all of his chances.
Sabres coach Ted Nolan immediately upped Leino’s ice time when he replaced Ron Rolston in November. But Leino blew his fresh opportunity, becoming a healthy scratch within weeks, a sign his days in Buffalo would be ending.
Right now, the Sabres have just $35,930,555 committed to 15 players for next season, according to capgeek.com, $18,080,834 under the salary floor. The Sabres still have one compliance buyout, a tool teams have been using to get under the cap since it was lowered last year.
In this case, the Sabres used a buyout for a different purpose.