Buffalo Sabres: Will Ville Leino Turn It Around This Season?
Whenever you see a six-year, $27 million deal in the NHL, it attracts a lot of attention.
When it comes to dollars and cents (and maybe sense), Leino did not live up to his billing last season. There is no debate about that. Ask him and he'll probably tell you himself that he was not pleased with how his season went.
His rollercoaster ride can be summed up pretty succinctly. He scored in the Sabres' first game, then scored a goal and had two assists in the next 21 games. After finding a groove and scoring five points in his next seven outings, he injured his ankle and missed the next 11 games. He was held scoreless in his first seven games back from injury, and then was steady from that point on.
There were many quasi-excuses made for Leino over the course of the season, with the main one being he was not comfortable making the transition to center and couldn't pick up coach Lindy Ruff's system as a result.
We'll come back to that notion in a minute, but on a high level it looks like Regier got robbed on the side of the highway by Leino.
It's a given that Leino, per his performance last season, is not worth the $4.5 million per year price tag. But the other related question is whether or not he is a positive force on the ice for the Sabres.
That's where you need to look a bit closer; where appearances on a score sheet do not necessarily tell the entire story.
Leino is all about puck possession. If you talk to a sample of NHL general managers and coaches, his name would certainly be one of the first to come up if the conversation turned to the best puck-possessing forwards in the game.
One of the biggest issues Leino had in his first few months as a Sabre was getting used to a role that was not suited for his possessing style. Centers in Lindy Ruff's system are not given many opportunities to possess the puck low in the offensive zone, Leino's strong suit. Instead, Ruff likes his centers to be in the slot and to rotate down when necessary.
This obviously impacted Leino in the sense that he was taken out of his comfort zone. But, as many Sabres fans have argued, when you're paid $4.5 million a year, the expectation is that you are a good enough hockey player to adapt to a new system.
That thought is completely true, but it should also be pointed out that when Leino was eventually given the same system he had in Philadelphia, he started playing some really good hockey. His shallow zone turnovers disappeared. He created ice for Jason Pominville and Derek Roy. His defensive zone coverage was superb.
So, yes, Leino did not perform to his contract last season, no one can argue he did, and he may never be a true $4.5 million guy. But the reality is that if he plays like he did down the stretch last season, he may be an extremely valuable piece to the Sabres moving forward.
Moving forward, Leino would be an excellent linemate for Mikhail Grigorenko, who continues to dazzle in the QMJHL. Despite the Sabres' scouting director Kevin Devine's recent comments that it will be "difficult" for Grigorenko to make the team, anything can happen. Leino's style of play would be a perfect complement to Grigorenko's, with their other linemate possibly being the newly-acquired Steve Ott.
Look for a bounce-back year from Leino. Any expectations of 60-plus points may be a pipe dream, but strong two-way play and a ferocious forecheck should be expected in a second or third-line role.
No, it's not a $4.5 million role, but eventually Sabres fans are going to have to look past that aspect and concentrate on the positives he brings to the ice.
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