Ville Leino’s transition to the Sabres has admittedly been a bit overwhelming.
The Finn’s spent five weeks acclimating himself to a new position, team and system while trying to live up to the expectations that accompany his surprising six-year, $27 million contract.
So far, Leino has only one goal and two points, not the kind of numbers the Sabres expected when they nabbed the 28-year-old early in free agency.
Back on July 1, the Sabres signed Leino to be a top center, a move that raised some eyebrows since he had spent his entire NHL career as a winger. But Leino, a pivot in Europe, wanted another crack in the middle.
Just seven games into the season, he’s already back on the wing, a change Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Leino mentioned he’d like. He should skate on the left side with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford when the Sabres host the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at the First Niagara Center.
Don’t read too much into Leino’s brief Sabres career, though, Ruff cautioned. He knew Leino would need an adjustment period.
“I’ve always said it takes time,” Ruff said Monday. “There’s a lot of examples of players that step in and initially it’s tough. He’s done some good things. Obviously, he’s been uncomfortable in some situations. But I like what he’s done so far. I’d like him to have better numbers but he doesn’t.”
For Leino, playing the wing again will allow him to think less and play more naturally, something he hasn’t been able to do while searching for some comfort with the Sabres.
“There’s so much new and you’re trying to get used to everything, especially playing center and linemates would change and stuff like that,” said Leino, who played only 9:40 last week in Montreal. “You’re kind of trying to focus on things, and there’s another new thing in there.
“It’s easier when hockey comes to you. You play, you’re natural, you play on your instincts — that’s how I’ve played, that’s how I’ve always played. I can’t be thinking there too much.”
Playing center made Leino, a strong puck handler, lose some of his aggressiveness.
“A lot of the times when you wanted to go you were kind of thinking you’re not supposed to go,” Leino said. “You just want to play it safe and be on the defensive side. I think I played pretty solid defensively, but offense, that’s actually my game.”
That’s certainly true. In 2010, Leino had seven goals and 21 points in 19 games during Philadelphia’s run to the Stanley Cup final. Last season, his first as an NHL regular, he had 19 goals and 53 points. He accumulated most of his points with the Flyers on the right wing with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell.
Two things made putting Leino on the wing easy. Rookie Luke Adam, a bubble player during training camp, has emerged as a top center, compiling three goals and six points already. Then, winger Tyler Ennis sprained his ankle early Saturday in a 3-0 loss in Tampa Bay. Leino took his spot with Roy and Stafford after that. Ennis is “week-to-week,” Ruff said.
Now, Ruff hopes the new trio stays together.
“That would be the thing you hope the most, that Roy and Leino and Stafford could stay together and develop a little bit of chemistry,” Ruff said. “I think that’s the most important part. It isn’t position-to-position. I think it’s leaving three individuals together for a while, and they develop chemistry and play well together.”
Leino, who spent most of this season centering Ennis and Brad Boyes, is intrigued by the new line.
“(Stafford) is a great goal scorer,” he said. “Derek makes a lot of plays. So I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We played pretty good last game. We just want to create and make stuff happen out there.”
Leino’s confident he’s starting to adapt to his new surroundings.
“I’m getting to know the players a little better; the players are getting to know me, what I do, my tendencies on the ice,” he said. “I feel a lot better. We’ll try to move on here.”
Boyes will play his 500th consecutive game tonight. Incredibly, the 29-year-old’s never missed an NHL game. His ironman streak ranks third behind Calgary’s Jay Bouwmeester and Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin.
“In today’s game it is (impressive), that you’re able to put that many games together,” Ruff said. “With the size of the players and the amount of games you play, short days where you play four in a week and stuff, it’s hard to put a string like that together.”
Boyes, who hasn’t scored this season, should play down low on the power play tonight.
“He can pound the puck, and I think if we can get him in situations where he can pound it, we can utilize his tools a little bit more effectively,” Ruff said.
NOTES: Ruff said backup goalie Jhonas Enroth will start this week. The Sabres also play at home Thursday and Saturday. Ruff had planned to give the rookie his second nod last week, but Ryan Miller was too hot to rest. … Center Paul Gaustad (muscle pull) sat practice for a maintenance day, Ruff said. He should play tonight. … Tonight starts a five-game homestand.