El Evil Lion

By Chris

The Buffalo Sabres raised some eyebrows on July 1 when they signed Ville Leino, a winger with 30 career regular season goals to a contract worth $27 million over six years. Then the team said they planned to move him to center, the position he mostly played before he came to the NHL, but the one hadn’t really played in at least four seasons.

Of course it’s going to take time for Leino to fit in. He’s joining a team that has a lot of players who have been together for awhile and have already developed a lot of chemistry. His season started out strong as he scored a goal in the season opener. He was playing with Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis, two wingers with high expectations of their own.

Then he found himself searching for ice time and bumped down to the fourth line. He’s struggled to find his place in the lineup and, as a result, hasn’t been able to generate chemistry with stable linemates.

In Philadelphia last season, Leino played a majority of the time with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. Of Leino’s 19 goals in 2010-11, Briere and Hartnell contributed 17 of a possible 34 assists. The combination of Briere and Hartnell also generated both the primary and secondary assists on five of those 19 goals — those five were all at even strength.

On the powerplay, Leino had a connection with Mike Richards. The center recorded an assist on each of Leino’s six powerplay goals, including the playoffs. Leino seemed to benefit from playing with familiar faces and that hasn’t happened yet in Buffalo.

Tonight, he gets to test out some new linemates in Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, Buffalo’s top two scorers.

Vanek has taken over as the team’s primary offensive weapon so far this season and has played with a lot of confidence. When he’s had the puck, he’s created great opportunities and has been the Sabres’ most exciting forward. The primary beneficiary of his play thus far has been Pominville.

The new captain, Pominville just had the most successful October of his career. His five goals this past month matched his 2007 total (he did score a career-high seven in 2006) but his nine assists gave him 14 points in October 2011. He’s going to the net and his defensive play has been very good as well. All this while managing the duties of being the full-time captain.

Vanek and Pominville are clicking and Buffalo’s third leading scorer, the man Leino is replacing, Luke Adam, has done pretty well in the No. 1 center role. He entered training camp hoping to make the team, maybe as the 13th forward, but following an injury to Derek Roy, he found himself pivoting the top line when the team traveled to Europe.

Adam’s success should have, in theory, made it easier for Leino to adjust to playing hockey in Buffalo. Adam with Vanek and Pominville meant Leino was effectively the No. 2B center behind Derek Roy. Leino could ease into his role and there wouldn’t be as much pressure on him to put up numbers.

Unfortunately, Leino has only two points in his first 10 games. In what looks like a clear sign of not being comfortable, he mentioned to coach Lindy Ruff that he’d like to go back to wing after Tyler Ennis went down with an ankle injury.

Since the spot was open, Ruff obliged. With Leino moving up to play with Vanek and Pominville, however, it’s pretty clear that the plan is for Leino to be a center. The Sabres do have a lot of depth at forward and it’s only been 10 games, so it’s not like this is Leino’s last chance to impress. There are other combinations that can be tested or re-tested as needed. The Sabres didn’t sign him for 30 days; they signed him for six years (for those already frustrated by his play, that’s probably a scary thought).

Not having success right away in the middle might be contributing to Leino’s uneasiness. Oddly enough, the game in which he recorded his assist (the road game against the Panthers) was the first game in which he saw some shifts on the wing. But that was five games ago and he hasn’t done anything since.

He has made some nice plays (there was a hard-nosed shift in the Montreal game where he worked the puck up along the boards and then made a great saucer pass to Andrej Sekera, who subsequently had his shot blocked from the point) but those plays haven’t converted into nearly enough goals.

Skating with Vanek and Pominville will give Leino his best opportunity to succeed yet. It might seem odd to “reward” a struggling player by putting him with the team’s hottest weapons. It might seem counterproductive to break up the club’s most dominant line. But that might just be the kickstart Leino — and by extension, the team — needs. And with his old club, the Philadelphia Flyers, in town, it’s not like there’s even more pressure on Leino or anything.

Leino has shown a lot of patience with the puck but it hasn’t paid off for him yet. Now we’ll see how much patience Ruff will have with him if his name doesn’t start showing up on the scoresheet soon.

Email me.
Follow me on Twitter.
Read my other posts.