Leino strengthens already deep forward group
Things just keep getting better for the Buffalo Sabres, who have quickly shed their penny-pinching image since rookie owner Terry Pegula took the reins in February.
After general manager Darcy Regier acquired big-money defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff in the days leading up to free agency, he went to work on the forward group Friday. Regier added a much-needed presence to his club’s top six, shocking the hockey world with a six-year, $27 million deal for ex-Flyer Ville Leino. Amazingly, small-market Buffalo now has the highest payroll in the NHL.
Leino, a 27-year-old Finn who broke out with 19 goals and 34 assists as a winger last season, is expected to return to his natural position – center – in Buffalo. That has understandably been met with skepticism from many Sabres fans. After all, there was an expectation that Buffalo would procure an established center for its top six (i.e., prized free agent Brad Richards). While Leino isn’t that, he’s certainly a competent top six forward who will add further scoring depth to the fold. Leino is also viewed as a big-game player, having torched the Sabres in April’s playoff series with three goals – including Philadelphia’s back-breaking overtime winner in Game 6 – not to mention 21 points in the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010.
After a terrible start last season, one of the keys in Buffalo’s second-half resurgence was balance in its forward group. Thanks in part to the Leino acquisition, the Sabres will be able to continue that trend next season with a deep cast of forwards likely to consist of three offense-driven lines and a physical fourth line of newly re-signed Cody McCormick, Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta.
In their probable top nine, the Sabres will have Leino, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, Tyler Ennis, Brad Boyes, Nathan Gerbe and Jochen Hecht. Seven of those nine have had at least one 20-goal season in the NHL, while the other two – Leino and Gerbe – accumulated 19 and 16, respectively, in their first full seasons as pros in 2010-11. Vanek, Roy, Stafford, Pominville and Boyes have all turned in at least one 30-goal year.
Ultimately, Leino isn’t the superstar center Sabres fans were looking for entering the offseason, but he’s yet another talented player for coach Lindy Ruff to work with. And, as someone who had a 57 percent face-off success rate (albeit in just 137 attempts) and led the Flyers in shooting percentage last year, Leino should be just fine as Tim Connolly’s replacement. That’s especially true at even strength, where Connolly finished with a mere 23 points last season compared to Leino’s 42; moreover, it’s reasonable to believe the 6-foot, 182-pounder will improve on his overall point total (53) considering he’ll get more power-play time in Buffalo than he did Philadelphia.
So, Sabres fans, Leino may not be on Richards’ level, but he will help give the team a forward group to be reckoned with. A fan base that was long forced to watch from the sidelines every July 1 can’t complain about that.