Ville Leino said it feels like he’s getting a second chance with the Buffalo Sabres. And while that may be true, it’s also likely his last chance.
But Leino has got some things in his favor. The biggest is that he’s healthy after nearly four years of nagging hip trouble.
“It’s exciting,” Leino said after taking part in a scrimmage Thursday on the opening day of camp in First Niagara Center. “New start, new coach. I’m playing right wing, which is my favorite spot. I’m healthy. Everything is going the way you want it to go at this point and I’m really excited to go back out there. It’s a new start and almost like I didn’t play for a year.”
“He feels good. He wants to have a good year and we want him to have a good year for us,” said coach Ron Rolston. “I think he finally feels he’s in the right spot right now.”
Leino, who will turn 30 on Oct. 6, had surgery on his right hip over the summer. So he now has a matching set of repairs, to go with the surgically repaired left hip he had done in 2010.
He was never close to full strength last year as the hip dogged him and then he suffered a lung injury. He played just eight games, none until mid-March, but had two goals and six assists. There was even plenty of talk the Sabres would be looking to buy out the final four years of his six-year, $27 million contract signed on July 1, 2011.
But the injury made that a moot point so Leino and his $4.5 million cap hit is back again.
But despite scoring just 10 goals in 79 games with Buffalo the last two years, there’s a feeling Leino is unquestionably a player who can provide the Sabres badly-needed improvement in the puck possession department. Leino is known for being tough to get off the puck down low, and that could also help the team’s power play.
“We missed it a lot and we’ve been missing it for two years. It’s hard to win games when you don’t have the puck,” Leino said. “You’re always behind and when you get the puck, you don’t have as much energy because you’re always defending. … I’ll try to help my part there and that’s my game.”
Leino is playing the wing with center Mikhail Grigorenko and left winger Steve Ott. It was a good looking line in the week before last year’s lockout-shortened season began but never got much of a chance during the season. The line generated some chances during Thursday’s action and Leino even got drilled from behind by Patrick Kaleta and tumbled over goaltender Jhonas Enroth.
“I’m not worried about getting hit. It’s good to have hits to get used to what it is,” Leino said. “I was more worried about Jhonas. That’s kind of a dangerous play. … But it was good to get a couple hits, to get contact and not to be afraid to be hit.”
General Manager Darcy Regier took issue with a tweet from CBC’s Elliotte Friedman that the Sabres would be willing to keep some of Thomas Vanek’s $6.4 million salary as part of a potential trade. Regier had told Buffalo reporters Wednesday the trade market is currently dead and emphasized that position again Thursday.
“I got emailed asking me that question and my experience is you don’t answer those emails, whether they’re true or not true,” Regier said, making no direct reference to Friedman, a popular host on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
“There’s no benefit to me in answering. There’s nothing going on, first of all. So it’s a misleading email. There isn’t a player in the National Hockey League if the right deal was there, a team wouldn’t take some money back on. It applies to everyone, so it’s a rather pointless thing to say. It really is.
“It’s available across the league. It’s part of the new CBA. If you want to offer enough, another team is going to take some money back. It doesn’t matter who the player is.”
When the Sabres took the ice Thursday, their top line had newly signed Cody Hodgson centering left winger Marcus Foligno and Vanek on the right side, where he played from time to time under Lindy Ruff.
Foligno ended last year at center and proved to be solid in the faceoff circle, where the Sabres struggled. But Rolston had him back as the top-line left winger Thursday to provide “some heavy hockey” to the line.
“That’s where I’m most comfortable but center or wing doesn’t matter,” Foligno said. “I’m happy to be on the wing though. Board play is kind of where my size comes in and I can get the pucks out and get up ice quicker.”
The Gold team posted a 2-0 win over the Grey team, which included Leino’s line, in Thursday’s scrimmage. Centers Justin Kea, a 2012 draft choice, and Johan Larsson, acquired from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville trade, had the goals. … The team practices today beginning at 7:45 a.m. and then scrimmages at 9:15, with the public invited. The day’s activities end at 10:30 to accommodate the team’s annual golf tournament. There will be three sessions Saturday, starting at 8:45 a.m., with a scrimmage at 11:15. … Individual tickets for the regular season go on sale Saturday at 9 a.m. The home opener is Oct. 4 against Ottawa.