Of the three off-season acquisitions made by the Buffalo Sabres, Ville Leino was probably the biggest question mark.
Leino was acquired to play center, despite playing exclusively as a winger in Detroit and Philadelphia. He has proven to be a playoff performer (21 points in 19 games for Philly in 2010) and had a solid 2010-11 season for the Flyers (19+34). For those playing at home, that would have been second-highest on Buffalo’s roster. Leino was dynamic playing a wing/center hybrid for the Flyers alongside Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell.
Darcy Regier and the Sabres were convinced Leino could play center and play center well. Perhaps they reached a bit after losing the Brad Richards sweepstakes, but they identified Leino as an adequate piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle. He was expected to step into Tim Connolly’s role and improve on the shortcomings the oft-injured center had.
However, Leino has proven to be a difficult commodity to appropriate as the season has gotten rolling. He played on a dangerous line between Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford during the preseason; you may have dubbed them the second line behind Vanek-Adam-Pominville. The trio didn’t post big numbers but they showed brilliant puck control and the ability to give teams fits. The line had the potential to create quite a bit of offense.
Upon Derek Roy’s return to the lineup, Brad Boyes was moved to play with Leino as Stafford went to the wing with Roy. The season opened with Leino centering Boyes and Ennis. It was a line with a good mix of offensive attributes. The trio managed to create significant chances in a low-zone cycle in most of Buffalo’s contest. It seemed clear that the goals would come as they continued to create chances. Still, the overall lack of production seemed to be concerning to many.
The 25-minutes of sleepwalking the Sabres put forth yesterday in Montreal triggered the first line shuffle of the season for Lindy Ruff. He kept his top line intact but reorganized the remaining nine forwards. Paul Gaustad centered Nathan Gerbe and Pat Kaleta; Roy skated between Ennis and Stafford while Leino was given the spare parts, Boyes and Cody McCormick. The shuffle sparked a victory, but has left the Sabres’ high-priced free agent on a makeshift line with no true assets surrounding him.
Hopefully Ruff reevaluates his lines before the Sabres arrive in Florida. It would be great to see Leino skate with two players who will augment his offensive skillset. There is no doubting Leino’s skill; there is a sense that something good is going to happen when he gets the puck on his stick. It has been a while since the Sabres had a player like that. Leino just needs the right linemates to capitalize on that skill.
Putting Leino back between Ennis and Stafford may be the easiest fix for the time being. It seems as if Boyes is in a serious funk and may not find the 40-goal magic ever again. Ennis could also be the problem, but Leino succeeded with a small goal scorer in Philly (Briere) there is no reason to think the same wouldn’t be true in Buffalo. Putting Stafford on the opposite wing would give Leino and Ennis a more energetic, big body player to clear space, Boyes hasn’t been that kind of guy for Buffalo through five games.
The fact of the matter is that Leino isn’t a do-it-yourself dynamo. He feeds off his linemates just as they feed off him. Finding the right mix of players for Leino to play with will be crucial.
Jochen Hecht may offer some balance to the situation upon his return. Hecht’s ability to play center could allow Leino to bump to wing, if absolutely necessary. While that isn’t an ideal situation, the emergence of Luke Adam has given the Sabres quite a bit more depth at center than they were expected to have. Hecht makes the option of putting Leino on the wing realistic because he is well suited to play center, particularly in a two-way role.
Now, the Sabres are paying Leino to play center, not wing. However, if placing him on the wing with Roy and Stafford recreated the success Leino had with Danny Briere, there is no reason not to do it. Based on who the Sabres have at their disposal – namely Hecht – it seems silly not to flex Leino to the wing to see how he adapts.
There is still a bit of a backup in terms of the number of wingers the Sabres have at their disposal. Plus, it is only five games into the season. Players who are starting to find themselves under the microscope could easily go on a run and quiet any doubters.
I certainly don’t doubt what Ville Leino brings to the Sabres, I just wonder if he is being utilized properly at this point.