Undrafted, but an accomplished player in Europe, Leino’s first North American contract was with the Detroit Red Wings. Those days in ‘Hockeytown’ didn’t last long and he has since received a look from two other organizations, showcasing mixed results.
Hardly a model of consistency, this puck-mover has played with the emotions of clubs that seen him as a suitor and for the most part, hasn’t warranted a place in their line-ups. While the Philadelphia Flyers saw Leino at his best, at least so far in his career, Detroit and Buffalo cannot share the same opinion.
Obviously, Leino’s status as a controversial and confusing figure aren’t without reasoning, which is why we shall dissect the curves in his National Hockey League dossier.
How does one exactly summarize a career that is merely 220 games old?
Honestly, it’s like one of the rides available at a fair or carnival being held in a mall parking lot: you get excitement, uncomfortable feelings and the occasional vomiting.
October 2008: Words of encouragement
In May of 2008, Leino was signed to a one-year entry level contract. Two days before the new season began, Leino, along with Darren Helm and Jonathan Ericsson, was released to the Grand Rapids. For the time being, his debut would be put on hold, but head coach Mike Babcock didn’t let him leave without offering his own insight.
"This is the best player I’ve been involved in sending to the minors, I can tell you that," Babcock said. "He’s got a nose for the net, goes to the net, dominant on the cycle, makes great passes. He’s a Red Wings type player. Leino, I think he’s going to be a scoring machine."
Absorbing these thoughts, Leino knew that his wait for an opportunity would be minimal.
January 2009: An excellent debut
Detroit was second-best on this occasion in Washington, but Leino turned in an encouraging performance. It did not take long for him to score his first NHL goal–six shifts to be exact–and the execution showed off his skill set, what with the pull-back, spin and finish. It was definitely one of the prettier goals to kick-start a career and Leino had announced his arrival.
Finishing the year with nine points in 13 games, the sneaky winger was awarded a one-way, two-year contract extension in July. Surely, this was the beginning of a great partnership between Leino and the Red Wings.
Little did anyone know, it would actually prove to be the beginning of the end.
February 2010: Throwing in the towel
Failing to find consistency and assert himself in the line-up, general manager Ken Holland dealt Leino to the Philadelphia Flyers. Defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who did not get a debut for Detroit, and a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft were seen as reasonable returns for the frustrating forward partly because of management’s inability to find a taker for the $800,000 salary.
Lauded by his coach less than two years earlier, Leino was now disposed of and shifted to not just a new club, but also a different conference. He would get the last laugh though, as Holland received the losing end of a transaction for a change.
April – June 2010: Playoff payoff
Leino’s conclusion to the regular season with Philadelphia was a mirror image of how he began it in Detroit: unproductive. It appeared as though there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, as he became a healthy scratch in the playoffs and carried no power over his destiny.
But when Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter were both confirmed as injured, Leino spotted his opening. Approaching the net, holding the puck on a string and moving like a seasoned professional, he finally put the pieces together and blossomed alongside Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell.
"When Ville wasn’t in the lineup, it wasn’t because of anything he was doing," Peter Laviolette said. "We just had other players ahead of him in our lineup. He knew that and continued to work. He’s a terrific person. He’s the same person who came to the rink today with the same attitude he did when he was scratched 10 games in a row. Ville deserves credit because, when he got the opportunity, he made the most of it. He’s brought so much to the table offensively and makes everyone around him better."
Establishing new rookie records for his point (21) and assist (14) totals, Leino provided an extra edge for Philadelphia’s attack during their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Now, the task at hand would be for him to replicate that fine form from October to April, which had yet to happen.
October 2010 – April 2011: So-So season
While Leino’s play was not as magical in the following regular season, he remained a top six forward and composed respectable offensive numbers. In a welcoming alteration of events, he went the entire year without being scratched, pointed towards the minor leagues or traded, and for good reasons.
At the top of his list of memorable moments was a hat-trick, his first, which Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec had the privilege of sharing the blame for as goaltenders of the one-time Atlanta Thrashers. And somewhere, a wry smile was crossing the face of Paul Holmgren, because Leino was being paid a modest $825,000 and adding only $800,000 to the organization’s salary cap.
April 2011: Buffalo bandit
Twice, Leino crushed the Buffalo Sabres with back-breaking goals; first by sweeping in an overtime winner in Game Six and then wiring a shot that discarded any hopes of a comeback in the all-deciding match.
Philadelphia went on to be swept by the Boston Bruins in the Conference Semi-Finals, failing to erase a 3-0 deficit as they did in 2010. Unrestricted free agency awaited Leino and he would be expecting somewhat of an increase in pay. To say that his desires were answered is an understatement.
July 2011: Show me the money
With the impending release of Tim Connolly, the Buffalo Sabres were seeking someone from the group of free agents. Terry Pegula’s willingness to spend money and build a championship club was far from a secret, proven by his ten-year, $40 million acquisition of Christian Ehrhoff.
Shortly thereafter, Leino put pen to paper on a six-year, $27 million contract. Supposedly comfortable on the wing and at center, where he played in Finland, Lindy Ruff’s intention was to try him out down the middle.
"He was a centerman until age 23 and enjoys playing center," Ruff said at a press conference in Buffalo. "Actually, if you studied a little bit of Philly’s system, a lot of times he was the guy playing down low in the end on the Hartnell-Briere line."
October 2011: At it again
Europe, more specifically Leino’s home country of Finland, was the sight of Buffalo’s season opener and the former Jokerit member outshone fellow countrymen Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
Having set the bar high with his first goal in Detroit, Leino’s tally for Buffalo wasn’t as eye-popping, but still an example of his ability. Coupled with a 4-1 victory, it was another positive debut for the winger-turned-center.
December 2011: One and done
Infuriatingly, that was Leino’s lone goal in October and that trend continued in November and December, as he sat on three tallies. Obviously, this was unacceptable for a player of his stature, someone who starred in the most intense atmosphere available in hockey, the NHL postseason.
He managed to notch his one December goal at the expense of his ex-club, Philadelphia, but also elbowed rookie Matt Read in a textbook situation that Brendan Shanahan despises. Another minor twist in the saga.
Thankfully, Read was not hurt on the play and Leino was justifiably suspended for one game. While his casual nature did not sit well with the club, it actually saved him on this sequence because the ban would have been extended if he targeted Read more viciously.
January 2012: Disastrous dish
If one sequence summed up Leino’s campaign, it was an unnecessary blind pass in Chicago that led to a breakaway goal for Marian Hossa. Prior to that costly error, the match had been level and up for grabs, but the Blackhawks broke it wide open with three additional strikes.
Rapidly, the Buffalo Sabres were crumbling and while the bulk of the players couldn’t stay consistent, Leino’s issues were magnified due to the off-season excitement that surrounded him, not to mention the elevated status of his bank account.
April 2012: Explanation given
Full of excuses for his lousy year, Leino addressed the media and pointed the finger at a lot of people, namely everyone other than himself.
"It took me a really long time to get used to all the stuff," Leino said. "Sometimes the flow in our game wasn’t the way that it should be. We didn’t get the puck. Our defense didn’t get the pucks to forwards. We didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t have the puck enough. The flow of the game, it wasn’t quite there.
"Sometimes when you go out there and play, it’s easy. It’s just hockey. You go. But sometimes this season I felt like it was a different game. I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I wasn’t feeling like I was just playing hockey. Sometimes I had to think too much or it just was not coming naturally."
Signing Leino was one of the signals that a new era was surfacing in Buffalo, but his eight goals and 17 assists did not cut it, even a fraction of it. Frankly, he just ran out of ideas in a hurry, as his toe-drag deke only fashioned two goals and his movement–of the body and puck–was largely ineffective. Roberto Luongo’s iffy goaltending supplied him with his only two-goal outburst, nothing to be proud of.
One pattern has emerged from Leino’s brief career and it is related to expectations. When pressure has been put on him to play well, as it was in Detroit and his first season with Buffalo, it’s set him up for failure.
But when he’s had nothing to lose, like he did in Philadelphia, the results have taken a twist for the better. Contractually, Leino is secured for five more seasons and will be obligated to improve his influence on the club’s success; however, money shouldn’t be the sole root of fans’ anger.
In the days leading up to Leino’s trade to Philadelphia, he believed that he was "as low as you can go". That feeling must be flowing through his head again after last year’s debacle.
Ville Leino fought through this adversity once and he’ll have to dig deep to repeat the feat.
Encouragingly for him, there is really nowhere to go from here but upwards.