Ville Leino has been far from the most popular Sabre this season. His 4G/8A in his first 40 games, while going -8, has not complemented his $6 million salary very well. His play has represented the Sabres: high expectations, poor performance. However, while some players crack under pressure, some players rise to the occasion and play on another level in big pressure situations. Big Ville is a big game player.
Leino hasn't had a regular season that justifies his contract. Last season was the first time he registered more than 11 points. In 81 games, mostly playing on a line with Briere and Hartnell, he managed 19G/34A/53P. Steve Rucchin consistently put up big numbers playing between Selanne and Kariya. That's not to say that Briere and Hartnell are as good as those two were in their prime, but points are largely affected by linemates. One 53 point season while playing with two strong players does not earn a $27 million contract.What Ville Leino has done to justify a big contract is have a huge postseason. In 19 games in the 2009-10 playoffs, he put up 7G/14A/21P, with 2 GWG, while helping the Flyers reach the Finals. Beyond his stats, coach Peter Laviolette had him playing big minutes. In game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, in addition to scoring the game tying goal in the third period, Leino led all forwards in ice time in the Flyer's overtime win, playing 23:12. Leino didn't just play more than Briere, Richards, Carter, and Giroux, he played more than Toews and Kane as well. Those kinds of performances, though in a fairly small number of games, made him a desirable free agent.
The Sabres signed Ville Leino for his play in important games, to be a reliable and strong force in the playoffs. Given that the Sabres are currently 10 points out of a playoff spot with 31 games to play, every game for the rest of the season should have a playoff intensity. The Sabres have looked hungry the last two games, and with the increase in intensity, Leino's play has improved. He scored a big goal in Montreal and actually looked effective. A more qualified opinion, that of Lindy Ruff, played Leino 21:09 against the Canadiens, second among forwards to Pominville's 21:33. Against the Rangers, Leino logged only 16:06 of ice time, but shot fifth in the shootout. Leino is out of Ruff's dog house, and he looks primed to finish the season strong.