While it’s hard to believe now, Ville Leino’s arrival in Buffalo almost three years ago was greeted with some fanfare.
Back then, Leino was one of the best free agents on the market. Awarding Leino a stunning six-year, $27 million contract was risky. The Finn only had one full NHL season under his belt. But the signing proved the Sabres wanted to bring in the best talent they could and gun for a Stanley Cup.
Of course, Leino proved to be the dud. The contract is perhaps the worst in NHL history. Leino has 10 goals in 137 games with the Sabres. He scored zero last season.
With the NHL buyout period opening today, Leino’s Sabres career is all but over.
Let’s take a look at what the Sabres were thinking when they signed Leino. Here’s my story from the July 2, 2011 paper. Times have changed, haven’t they?
BUFFALO – The Sabres watched Ville Leino play 11 times with Philadelphia last season, and what they saw impressed them. The Finn, despite his wing position, often performed like a center, operating down low on his scoring line beside Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell.
Leino was hard to get off pucks, worked superbly in tight space and looked sturdy in front of the net, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
Following the season, the Sabres, with only one top scoring center under contract, quickly moved the 27-year-old free agent to the top of their want list. When the market opened Friday, they had a long conversation with Leino. It turns out he played center until he was about 24 years old.
With their chances of landing Brad Richards, the only elite center on a thin market, iffy, the Sabres rolled the dice with Leino, signing him to a huge six-year, $27 million contract, an annual $4.5 million salary cap hit.
Right now, the Sabres plan to use the 6-foot, 182-pound Leino at center.
“I talked to him about all three positions, and he’s comfortable at all three,” Ruff said late Friday afternoon inside HSBC Arena. “But his position that he likes the most is playing center, which is really a bonus, an ideal fit for us. We feel like, initially, that’s exactly where we want to utilize him.”
Many expected the Sabres, who have been wildly aggressive this offseason, to chase Richards, and they contacted his agent and planned to visit the 31-year-old in Mississauga, Ont., about a 90-minute drive from Buffalo. But as the day progressed, general manager Darcy Regier said, time became a factor. Several clubs still wanted to speak with Richards. If they wanted Leino, they had to act.
“We felt very strongly about Ville, and we felt it was important to make sure we didn’t allow a quality player to slip by us,” Regier said.
On a conference call with reporters, Leino said he had noticed the Sabres recently added Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, two respected defensemen.
“It’s going to be a good team in the future, a lot of young guys,” said Leino, who had 19 goals and 53 points in 81 games last season. “They’ve made some good adds with defensemen lately. It’s a great hockey town, and I think we have a good chance to win it next year, so I’m really excited.”
So are legions of Sabres fans. For the first time ever, the Sabres are prime players in a crowded offseason market. In the last week, new owner Terry Pegula has made good on his promise, spending more than $78 million on talent.
“We’re all happy,” Ruff said. “We feel that we’ve added to the positions we feel will make us a Stanley Cup contender.”
Incredibly, as of Friday night, the Sabres’ $62,995,357 payroll was the NHL’s largest, putting them just $1,304,643 under the $64.3 cap, according to gapgeek.com. Counting their four restricted free agents, the Sabres are actually over the cap, Regier said. Teams can exceed the cap by up to 10 percent in the summer, however.
Shortly before the market opened, the Sabres re-signed forward Cody McCormick, their top physical presence, to a three-year, $3.6 million contract. Their other notable unrestricted free agent, center Tim Connolly, likely won’t be re-signed after 10 years in Buffalo.
Some players will have to go soon to get under the cap, and Regier said he plans to pursue trades. There are no guarantees Leino will simply slide in and become the No. 2 center behind Derek Roy.
“We’ll work with the centers we have,” Regier said. “I think over the course of the summer we’ll focus in on possible trade opportunities to see if there’s any way we’ll continue to improve this team. But we feel very good about where we are right now.”
Of course, if Leino continues developing, he could become an asset in the middle.
“I was playing center all my youth until I was 23, 24, then I started playing the wing,” Leino said. “I think it’s a more natural position for me to play and to get more pucks and find open space for our D-men to get the pass. I’m looking forward to it.”
The undrafted Leino came to North America in 2008 after six seasons in the Finnish league. Detroit, with its strong record of finding and developing European players, gave up on Leino after only 55 games and 16 points.
When the Red Wings traded Leino to the Flyers late in 2009-10, he sat as a healthy scratch into the playoffs, only getting his chance late in the first round. Leino then shocked the NHL, finding immediate chemistry with Briere and Hartnell. He compiled seven goals and 21 points in 19 games during the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup final.
Leino did well again last season, his first opportunity to play regularly for long stretches. He had three goals and five points in the Flyers’ seven-game playoff win in April, a series Leino said the Sabres “deserved to win.”
Now the Sabres expect Leino to keep developing.
Regier said after watching Leino two seasons, he “is not only playing at a high level, we think there’s upside there, that he’s coming into his own.”
Ruff added: “We just think we’ve got a real good spot for him in our top six. He could be a real good offensive player for us.”