Ville Leino: International Man of Mystery

Didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 25. Only has one full NHL season under his belt, in which he scored 53 points. Has never played center in North America, yet the Sabres gave him $27 million to do so this offseason. Yes, we’re talking about Ville Leino, one of the hottest topics as the Sabres embark on this new season. Leino showed impressive focus on his goal in the season opener against Anaheim, but hasn’t registered a point since. So who exactly is Ville Leino? Where did this guy come from? Are fans giving him a fair shake?

Sabres fans were familiar with Leino thanks to his short tenure with the Philadelphia Flyers. His game winning overtime goal in game six of the first round of the NHL playoffs this past April forced a game seven that would see the Sabres eliminated. However, Leino was no stranger to big time playoff performances. In 2010, he recorded 21 points in just 19 games to help lead Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals. In fact, this tally set an NHL rookie record for most points in the playoffs. Leino would follow up that performance this past year in the postseason with a more pedestrian showing, registering five points in 11 games.

So Leino has been a hot name within certain NHL circles the past couple years.  But what is his back story?  What exactly was this guy doing before age 25?

Ville Leino was born in Savonlinna, Finland on October 6, 1983.  He began playing professional hockey at age 17.  After starting his career playing for his hometown team, Leino eventually signed with HPK of the SM-liiga hockey league in Finland.  Leino went on to lead the team in scoring during the 2005-2006 season (43 points in 56 games), a season that would see HPK win their first title in the SM-liiga.  It is important to note that this was the last season Leino played center.

In 2007, Leino signed with Jokerit, another team in the SM-liiga.  This was the year that saw Leino garner attention internationally, as he registered 77 points in 59 games, breaking Jokerit’s all time single season points record.  For a team that has been in existence since 1967, this is a notable accomplishment.  Leino was named MVP of the SM-liiga at the conclusion of the season in 2008.

With his stellar play overseas, Leino was granted a contract by the Detroit Red Wings in May of 2008. With Detroit chock full of talent and bloated salaries at the NHL level, Leino was stashed in the minors until he finally made his NHL debut in January of 2009. He didn’t disappoint, scoring a goal in his first game. Leino went on to play in 42 games for the Red Wings during the 2009-2010 season, registering only seven points in that time. Despite this low output, the Flyers saw something in Leino when they traded for him in February of 2010. After scoring only four points in 14 games for the Flyers down the stretch, Leino started the 2010 playoffs as a healthy scratch.

The rest is history. When Philadelphia lost Simon Gagne to injury, Leino was thrust into action and completed one of the most dangerous lines in the playoffs that year, flanking Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. He followed up his record setting playoff run with a decent regular season in 2010-2011, registering 53 points (19 goals) in 81 games, which eventually led to his game winning OT goal against the Sabres.

So who exactly did the Sabres get when they committed six years to Leino at a hefty $27 million price tag?  Did they get the former international MVP?  The record setting rookie?  The mediocre regular season player?  I guess we won’t know for a while, but I’d have to guess it’s somewhere in between.  The book on Leino is so short that he is still largely a mystery.  Perhaps he’s just a late bloomer still adjusting to the North American game.  At least that’s the story the Sabres front office would like you to buy for now.

When the Sabres failed to acquire a top line center this offseason, signing a winger in Leino and converting him to center did smell a little like a desperation move. To make it even harder on Leino, the Sabres have asked him to be the playmaker for Tyler Ennis (a second year player the Sabres expect big things from), and Brad Boyes (a player the Sabres hope can rediscover his offensive spark). Asking Leino to anchor this line in which there is so much doubt could spell doom down the road. It will be interesting how short a leash Lindy Ruff has in the early parts of the season.

But is a move back to wing for Ville Leino out of the question? The emergence of Luke Adam may just pave the way for that. Ruff has been adamant about finding a spot for Jochen Hecht in the lineup upon his return. If Adam keeps playing as if he’s going to cement himself on this roster, maybe someone like Boyes could find himself as a healthy scratch and we see a Leino-Hecht-Ennis line, with Leino returning to the wing? Or perhaps Leino needs to move up the depth chart a bit, since his greatest success came from playing with two All Stars in Briere and Hartnell.

Sabres fans will have to exercise patience with Leino.  His high price tag may provide easy fodder for critics looking to label him a "bust" if he struggles early on.  The fact of the matter is, you need to overpay to bring in the hot names, and Leino was one of them this offseason.  Darcy Regier decided to take a risk and pay the man.  Time will tell if it was a savvy move, catching a player on the rise, or a case of panic and overpaying for a perceived roster need.  Luckily, with the deep pockets of Terry Pegula, this team can now afford mistakes like that.

The Sabres are definitely a deep team, but they lack big time star power at some key positions.  If Lindy Ruff can find the right formula for Leino, perhaps he can rekindle the fire of a once explosive rookie and solve the riddle of the International Man of Mystery.