Ville Leino: Amnesty Buyout Target?
With the inclusion of amnesty buyouts (meaning the buyout cost will not count against a team’s salary cap) in the latest collective bargaining agreement, the axes has already fallen on two players. Scott Gomez was told by Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to stay home and await his buyout during the 2013 off-season, while Wade Redden was given permission to seek out trade targets in order to avoid being bought out by Glen Sather and the Rangers in the summer. Two contracts are on death row – will Ville Leino’s deal with the Sabres be the next to receive sentencing?
Following a productive run during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with linemates Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere, the Sabres took Ville Leino off of the Flyers’ hands with a six year, $27M contract. Fans and media immediately balked at a largely-untested winger with a career high of 53 points being given $4.5M a year to convert to center in a new system. Leino’s first season in Buffalo did nothing to allay those concerns, producing only 8 goals and 25 points in 71 games while futilely being shuffled from line to line by coach Lindy Ruff. As the season wore on and chemistry started to settle in, Leino found himself playing bottom six minutes with grinders and aging veterans.
Needless to say, the Finn’s first season in hockey-mad Buffalo was met with jeering fans and pundits chattering about free agency busts. But there’s hope yet for the Hugh Laurie (on some days) and Nick Stahl (on other days) lookalike.
With the Buffalo Sabres’ top two lines of Thomas Vanek-Cody Hodgson-Jason Pominville and Marcus Foligno-Tyler Ennis-Drew Stafford seemingly etched in stone (as much as Lindy Ruff line combinations can be etched in stone) and injuries to Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick opening up slots in the bottom six, Ville Leino could find himself playing on a line with hotshot draftee Mikhail Grigorenko and the freshly-traded-for Steve Ott (UPDATE: Ruff assembled this line on the first day of the 2013 training camp, and already had nice things to say). Such a trio would emulate the Hartnell-Briere-Leino line in Philadelphia, but with lesser responsibilities and less competition as a third line. If Grigorenko makes the team out of camp and such a unit finds chemistry, the bad memories surrounding Leino’s first season here could be pushed to the wayside.
That’s a lot of what-ifs, though. If Grigorenko returns to the Quebec Remparts (which just feels unlikely), Jochen Hecht could be playing center for Ott and Leino and drastically changing the dynamic of the line. Even if the Ott-Grigorenko-Leino line does come together, a lack of chemistry or players returning from injury could shuffle the line and doom the winger to another season languishing in uncertainty. Without a huge improvement over his 2011-2012 numbers, the general manager Darcy Regier could look at Ville Leino and the four years remaining on his contract at $4.5M per as a buyout target while the rest of the offense potentially shapes up without Leino in the picture.
Terry Pegula may not be so quick to cut a guy that was his first big free agent signing as team owner, but who knows what could go down this season and the summer following it. We’ll just have to wait and see how the roster shakes out and the shortened campaign progresses before we can revisit the topic. Unlike the already-exiled Gomez and Redden, Leino has that luxury working for him.