Finding the right spot for Ville Leino

Of the three off-season acquisitions made by the Buffalo Sabres, Ville Leino was probably the biggest question mark.

Would a move back to wing benefit Ville Leino?

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. Continue reading

Sabres season preview: The Centers

This is the final part in a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres season. Part five focuses on the centers, read the previous entries here: 1,2,3,4,5.

The Buffalo Sabres organization is painfully thin at center. This was a point of emphasis when the offseason began and remains a sticking point today. There was hope that a center would be found either before the draft or when free agency opened. Neither market yielded the result the Sabres desired.

Instead, Buffalo added Ville Leino in hopes of playing him as a pivot with their top six. Leino was a consolation prize, of sorts, after the Sabres missed out on the Brad Richards sweeps. Leino is a dynamic talent who couples silky smooth agility with scary hands. It has been said Leino will translate well to center because he played low in the Flyers system and was a center during his time in Finland.

So far I am sold on Leino stepping in at center. I only saw him in one preseason game, but he finds open ice and clears lanes for his line mates. Although he won’t see time on the penalty kill, I could Leino as an absolute upgrade over Tim Connolly as the “second-line center”. Continue reading

Breaking down the Sabres’ signings

For the first time in my 25 years on Earth, the Buffalo Sabres were major players in the NHL free agent market. In fact, the Blue & Gold had the highest payroll in the NHL when the dust had settled.

The week prior to July 1 saw Darcy Regier poach Robyn Regehr, a second-round pick and Ales Kotalik (a charity pick-up) from the Calgary Flames for Chris Butler and Paul Byron. Point Regier. What is more impressive is that Buffalo was attractive enough for Regehr to waive his no movement clause for.

Regier then snagged Christian Ehrhoff’s negotiating rights and managed to ink him to a massive deal prior to the UFA market opening up. Ehrhoff, has put up incredible numbers in Vancouver. He is a career minus in the playoffs. However, I blame his -13 this year – which put him deep into the minus numbers – on the shoulder injury that limited him in the later rounds.

Regehr looks a hell of a lot like Shrek, he also tosses people around like an angry orge. Sort of a fitting nickname, no? I don’t know if he will be reunited with Jordan Leopold, or if he will be paired with Tyler Myers to create a monstrous shut-down pairing. Ehrhoff could certainly compliment Myers well, and it may be a better fit considering both he and Leopold are quite offensively minded. Nevertheless, they make the blue line significantly stronger.

Regier went out and made two major additions to his blue line before the clock struck noon on Friday. It was expected that the Sabres would make a major push for Brad Richards. They never did, partially because the New York Rangers were given the final right to match an offer for Richards and because they may have lost out on Ville Leino.

Buffalo’s only UFA signing, thus far, has been Leino. Despite only signing one guy, Regier went out and got a big fish. Leino is a very talented forward, capable of playing all three forward positions who is a major playoff performer. He put a dagger in Buffalo’s series lead on Philly and has been on my personal radar since his first year with Detroit in 2008-09. They may have overpaid, but if he flourishes at pivot there is no reason to say they overpaid.

There is plenty of time left in free agency, despite the current financial restraints I don’t think Regier is done signing players. Especially if they are to make a trade or two, as I suspect.

Looking at the signings Buffalo has made thus far, including re-signing Nathan Gerbe, Cody McCormick and Mike Weber, they have made major improvements to the roster.

Between Shrek and The Hoff the Sabres’ top four is about six times better than they were last year. Just on paper, think about it. Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, Steve Montador and Shaone Morrison/Andrej Sekera versus Myers, Leopold, The Hoff and Shrek. It is sort of like buying a Chrysler 300 because it looks like a Phantom.

The Sabres’ back end will be better, no doubt. By association Ryan Miller should be better. It is the forwards, particularly the top six who will be interesting to watch.

Leino and Derek Roy are not exactly a deadly one-two punch at center. I still think Darcy has a trade up his sleeve. If Leino clicks and Roy continues that point-per-game clip from 2010-11 then there may be hope. The wingers are obviously set, Jochen Hecht or Brad Boyes will likely settle on to the third line. Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek all have homes with Buffalo’s top two centers. Now they just need to produce.

Surely there will be some shuffling amongst the bottom six forwards. I think their help, or reinforcements, are still on the to-do list for Darcy. I have a few thoughts on who may fit well in that role, even as a number one center depending on a potential trade.

Until Regier knows his cap number moving forward, not much else will be done by the Sabres.

Sabres vs. Flyers breakdown

The Sabres and Flyers get their series started tonight and many members of the media see this as one of the most even series of the entire first round. I’m not so confident in the Sabres ability to get past Philly. I certainly believe that they have the tools capable of pulling the upset. Of course, there is a reason the Philly was the second best team in the NHL for most of the season.

Why buffalo will win:

Ryan Miller. He has vastly improved his play from the beginning of the year. I feel that a great deal of that has to do with his workload and his health. He has played his best hockey since Jhonas Enroth has come up from Portland. If his extra rest has given him an edge then the Sabres will be in good shape. Continue reading