You watch Ville Leino play and too often nothing happens. It’s like that night after night. It’s obviously too much money to pay for a whole lot of nothing. It’s really almost hard to believe.
Is Leino the worst free agent signing in Buffalo sports history? He’s easily the Sabres’ version of Derrick Dockery, the big lineman who ended up making about $19 million from the Bills before they released him in 2009 after just two years of the seven-year, $49 million colossus he signed in 2007.
The six-year, $27-million contract Leino signed on July 1, 2011 is a cautionary tale for the Sabres and, frankly, for all NHL teams. He essentially hit the big payday because of one decent season, one strong playoff run and one key overtime goal.
Leino had seven goals and 21 points in 19 playoff games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 as they came within two wins of a Stanley Cup. Then he posted 19 goals and 53 points the next season, plus the overtime goal that won Game Six of the first-round playoff series in Buffalo and sent the Flyers home to win Game Seven.
His numbers with the Sabres are nothing short of astonishing.
Tuesday’s game against Florida was Leino’s 31st of the season. No goals. One point in the last nine games, an assist on Steve Ott’s third-period power-play goal. Two points in the last 16. Just seven points for the whole season. No goals since March 30, 2013. That’s coming up on 10 months ago.
Tuesday was his 110th career game with the Sabres. He has 10 goals and 38 points. He’s scored goals in just one of the last 39 games over two seasons.
In his last 83 games – one more than a full season – Leino has a goal in just five of them. Yep, astonishing.
Ted Nolan sure seems to have the same feeling about Leino all of you do. Nolan benched Leino once in early December, which prompted Leino to raise plenty of eyebrows when he said he didn’t know what Nolan wanted out of him (Cue crowd in unison: “A goal once in a while”).
The Sabres dropped Leino back to the fourth line Saturday after Nolan had questioned Leino’s will in the morning. On Monday, Nolan’s assessment was “It doesn’t matter what your skill level is. There’s nothing with no will.”
And Nolan kept at it Tuesday morning. So I asked Nolan if he feels he’s naturally tougher on the veterans like Leino than he would be on a younger player.
“The way I speak to you is the way I speak to them. And the way I speak to them is the way I speak to my sons,” Nolan said. “Certain things you have to do, and if it’s not working, sometimes you’re not working hard enough. That’s just the business we’re in.”
Since the December issue cropped up, Nolan and Leino have had some chats.
“I understand what he’s trying to do. I really do,” Leino said. “A guy like me, we’re veteran players. We should know what needs to be done out there, know how to avoid making mistakes. That’s what he’s asking.”
Nolan might be asking, but Leino doesn’t deliver enough. On one shift late in the first period, he cleanly lost an offensive zone faceoff and the Panthers took the puck right into the Buffalo end for a pair of decent chances before Ryan Miller covered up.
Leino was moving decently, however, and by the middle of the second period he replaced Linus Omark on the second line with Steve Ott and Cody Hodgson.
Leino saw time on a second-period power play and it was fruitless. On Ott’s goal, however, he did combine with Drew Stafford for some good work along the wall. It’s something.
Leino gets ice time, averaging 14:49 per game coming into Tuesday. Seven times this year, he’s been over 18 minutes. Five times he’s been over 19 minutes. Nothing. He just has to shoot more. Twenty-four shots on goal for an entire season?
Fans who revile Leino on a daily basis because of his woeful stat line might be surprised to find out he’s a pretty likable guy. He’s glib and he’s introspective. He’s never churlish like, say, Tim Connolly was.
When I was in Philadelphia in November and again when the Flyers were in town last week, veteran reporters who cover the Flyers shook their head over Leino’s play. But in both cases, their dismay came with the caveat that it was too bad things have never worked out here because they always liked dealing with Leino.
It’s pretty certain Leino has to go in June, when the NHL compliance window buyout will open. The Sabres might have pulled that escape hatch last year had Leino not been coming off hip surgery
It’s all about that zero in the goal column. On this team, imagine if he just had five.
“I’ve had chances to score,” Leino said. “I think I would be worried more about it if I didn’t. But it’s hard some days. You want to score. You have to keep trying.”
If he had a couple goals, Leino would simply be another Sabre scoring less than you’d expect. He wouldn’t be a complete washout.