By Bill Hoppe
NIAGARA FALLS —
Less than two years ago, frustrated, unsure if he would ever establish an NHL career, Ville Leino gave himself a deadline. If things remained the same, if he couldn’t start playing regularly, then at the end of the season he would return to his native Finland, where he was a superstar.
Believe it or not, Leino, who signed a six-year, $27 million contract with the Sabres in July, went undrafted. But as he rapidly improved, he earned notice and an NHL deal. Leino picked the Red Wings, a stacked team with a history of developing unheralded Europeans into stars.
The choice was equally frustrating and rewarding.
Leino immediately grew tired of riding buses in the minors. He wanted to be in Detroit, not Grand Rapids. He had played only 13 NHL games two years ago at this time.
He knew he belonged in the big leagues. Once he arrived, however, he soured on the experience. He barely played. Stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg kept him on the wing, away from holding puck, his strength.
By Christmastime 2009, Leino had made his decision.
“I was thinking about going back and having fun again playing,” Leino recalled Tuesday inside the First Niagara Center. “Playing in the minors really wasn’t the place for me, and I knew I was supposed to play in the NHL, too. So I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
Later in the season, Leino got his wish — or so he thought. Salary-cap concerns forced Detroit to trade him to Philadelphia.
“I didn’t get to play when I got there,” Leino said. “I was sitting for seven games.”
Then, almost magically, Leino morphed into a star. After watching the Flyers’ first four playoff games, he began skating on the wing with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. The line quickly became the Flyers’ best, a big reason the team caught fire and roared through to the Stanley Cup final.
In his 68 regular-season games before that, Leino had only 11 goals and 20 points. He compiled seven goals and 21 points in the 19 postseason contests.
What changed so suddenly?
“Good linemates, we thought the game the same way, so we had good chemistry right away,” said Leino, who had 19 goals and 53 points in 81 games last year, essentially his first full NHL season. “I don’t know. I guess I was just thinking, ‘I’ll play my own game. Whatever happens, I will play my own game.’”
Leino’s ability to hold the puck is probably his best asset. The idea of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Leino lugging it around and creating offense enticed the Sabres, who badly needed to find a No. 2 center in a thin market.
The 27-year-old, a pivot in Europe, had played the wing almost exclusively in the NHL. But he wanted to look for a center job in free agency. The Sabres had seen Leino up close — remember, he burned them for the Game 6 overtime winner here in April — and watched video of him operating down low.
“Our guess was he was comfortable at playing center,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
So far, through four preseason appearances, Leino’s performed well between Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford.
“It’s kind of something that never goes off my game,” Leino said about playing center. “I feel comfortable out there. … It’s something I’m born with.”
Still, despite that natural ability, it wasn’t a coincidence every NHL team passed Leino over.
“I was slow, a late-bloomer,” said Leino, who exploded for 28 goals and 77 points in only 55 games in 2007-08, his last Finnish season. “It took me a while to get used to things. When I got better, I got better a lot.”
Leino improved greatly with the Wings. Sure, the scant playing time nearly drove him home. But learning from a model organization, beside some of the game’s most complete stars made him the player he is today. He likes to model his game after Datsyuk.
“It’s a great working environment, learning environment,” Leino said about Detroit. “You learn a lot. I still, until today, use a lot of the things I had there. It was actually a great learning experience.”
Notes: According to two reports, the Sabres are trying to find winger Ales Kotalik a European team to play with this season. The Sabres waived the veteran last week to get under the cap. He hasn’t reported to AHL Rochester yet. … Center Derek Roy (shoulder) practiced again but could be held out tonight when the Sabres play in Washington. Meanwhile, center Jochen Hecht (possible head injury) skated on his own again. … Ruff said goalies Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth could share time tonight.