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Still in tact

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
The best discoveries are often made by accident. That’s especially true in hockey, where adjustments born of necessity sometimes bear unexpected fruits. Just as former Flyers coach Terry Murray had no inkling of what the then-unnamed  “Legion of Doom” line would accomplish when he experimentally put recently acquired John LeClair on a line with Eric  Lindros and Mikael Renberg in 1995, current bench boss Peter Laviolette had no way of  knowing what was to come when injuries in the lineup led to assemble a line with Daniel Briere centering Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ever since their formation, the trio has been the team’s most consistent – and sometimes downright dominating – forward unit. Each member of the line brings unique elements to its success: Briere offers speed and pure scoring prowess, Hartnell provides grit and physicality and Leino brings all-around skill and surprising tenacity.
“Both of those guys are very easy to play with, because they are so skilled,” said Hartnell. “They are also real hard workers, so it’s not just skill. As far as my part goes, I just try to bang some bodies around, and get to the net, no matter who I play with. That’s the way I need to play to be successful. But there’s just been really good chemistry with Danny, Ville and me. Who knows why? We seem to complement each other, and there’s good communication. We’ve had success and success creates confidence. Confidence is a weird thing. When it's there, you feel great, you're skating well and you’re in synch. That’s how it’s been.”

The line’s success in the 2010 playoffs and the early going of the current season has made it easy to forget that much of last year was very difficult for all three members of the line, both on and off the ice. Briere, Hartnell and Leino entered the 2009-10 season with high expectations. None were satisfied with their regular season output, and each saw a chance for redemption in the postseason. 

Briere and Hartnell both endured difficult personal situations off the ice, which made it difficult to give their full focus to hockey. Briere also dealt with a position change, moving from his preferred center position to spend much of the year on right wing. While his regular season totals weren’t disastrous (26 goals, 53 points in 76 games), it was less than expected.

For his part, Hartnell was not in as good of physical condition as he had been the previous season, when he scored a career-best 30 goals; the fourth straight season he’d tallied at least 22 goals. Hartnell had trouble with his balance and his timing last season, and took an excessive number of minor penalties, especially in the offensive and neutral zones (an issue that has sometimes been a problem for Briere as well). Hartnell’s 14 goals, 44 points and -6 defensive rating in the regular season were not satisfactory to the player, Laviolette or the fans.

Meanwhile, Leino began the 2009-10 season as a member of the Detroit Red Wings. Big things were expected of the former SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) MVP after he played well in a cup of coffee with the big club in 2008-09 and showed promise in seven playoff tilts for a club that reached the Stanley Cup Final. But Leino struggled to deliver last year, and an injury-ravaged and salary cap strapped Detroit team found itself in the  unfamiliar position of having to battle uphill to reach the playoffs. Leino produced only four goals and seven points in 42 games, working his way down the lineup and receiving less and less ice time.

By the time power forward Johan Franzen was ready to return to the lineup, there was no spot and no cap space to keep Leino. As a result, the club traded him to the Flyers on Feb. 6, 2010, in a deal for spare defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a 5th-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

Detroit had no interest in keeping Tollefsen, but the Flyers needed to rid themselves of the defenseman’s contract in order to add Leino. Detroit immediately placed Tollefsen on waivers and sent to the AHL for the rest of the season. After the end of the campaign, the defenseman signed as free agent to play for Modo Hockey in Sweden’s Elitserien. 

Meanwhile, the Flyers seemingly had little use for Leino.  He sat out as a healthy scratch in each of the six remaining games before the Olympic break, as well as the first game after the break. Although he scored a goal in his first game as a Flyer (a 7-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on March 3) and generated a team-high four shots two nights later in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Leino immediately returned to the scratch list. He dressed in just three of the next nine games, before finally getting into the lineup on a semi-regular basis.

Leino played in eight straight games down the stretch but was scratched for both ends of the critical final weekend home-and-home set against the New York Rangers, as the team got into the playoffs by virtue of a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season.  In total, the  Finnish forward started just 13 regular season games for the Flyers, scoring two goals and adding two assists for four points. He was also left out of the lineup for the first four games of the team’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series with the New Jersey Devils before injuries in the lineup finally provided him an opportunity to play every game. He had to be scratched ever since.
“I’m not going to lie. It was hard to sit out. You want to feel like you are contributing. But all I could do was work hard, and be patient. When the chance came, I just tried to play my game. - Ville Leino

“I’m not going to lie. It was hard to sit out. You want to feel like you are contributing. But all I could do was work hard, and be patient. When the chance came, I just tried to play my game. Thankfully it’s all worked out, and the playoffs are what’s it’s all about,” said Leino.
According to Laviolette, the lengthy period in which Leino was unable to get in the lineup was not a reflection on the player’s talent level. It was strictly a numbers game.

“We could see pretty quickly at practice that Ville was a skilled player. But I liked our lineup at the time, and he had to wait for his opportunity. I give him all the credit in the world. He never complained once, never sulked. He just kept working, and it goes without saying that he’s made the most of his chance. He’s a tremendous young man and a fine player, and his success since then is a testament to his dedication,” said the head coach.

If not the player’s skill, is there anything that surprised the coach about Leino, once he got to see the player in game situations on a regular basis?

“I didn’t realize he had such a tremendous compete level on the ice,” said Laviolette. “He’s very skilled in the way he hangs onto the puck and creates chances for his line, but Ville is also a battler. He fights for space and is very hungry for the puck. If it’s not on his stick, he’ll go get it. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s been a big help to Scott and Danny.”

Danny Briere can't explain the chemistry with Hartnell & Leino and admits it is something that just can't be taught.
The Hartnell-Briere-Leino line came together in the playoffs as a result of injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, which finally opened a spot in the lineup for Leino and resulted in Laviolette moving Briere from right wing to center. The results: Briere set a team single-season playoff record with 30 points (12G,18A) in 23 tilts. Leino racked up 21 points (7G,16A) in his 19 playoff appearances. Hartnell potted eight goals and 17 points in 23 games. The line was easily the club’s best unit in the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The trio has picked right up this season where it left off last June, despite Leino being temporarily set back by offseason hip surgery and Briere dealing with an offseason car accident, a preseason throat infection that caused him to lose weight, and a recent three-game suspension for an on-ice stick infraction. Even as the club struggled for offense in the early weeks of the season, the Briere line (along with Claude Giroux) kept on rolling. As Leino’s hip started to feel better and Hartnell found his scoring touch, the line has kicked it up to a level comparable to its  performance in the playoffs.

“Speaking for myself, I’m just trying to take things as they come and have fun out there,” said Briere. “It’s fun to be part of a winning team and come to the rink. It’s also really nice when your line is clicking and the momentum gets going. The biggest thing is that we don’t take anything for granted and we keep working at that. Then the results will come, too.”

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